My previous posts considered emotional education--how a child learns to label and understand feelings and desires based upon social biofeedback--and how this learning tends to occur at times of social development that are ecologically propitious. Because social biofeedback involves communication, it will be influenced by cultural expectations and values: for example, if most members of a culture expect that girls will be demure and boys bold, they will tend to provide social biofeedback labeling feelings and desires and encouraging behaviors in ways consistent with that cultural stereotype. But there are certain emotions where social biofeedback is inherently problematic. Strong sexual and violent emotions are difficult to deal with in interpersonal situations because they naturally challenge the relationship of the child and the interaction partner. Also, fortunately such feelings typically are relatively rare.
Sex and violence are associated with what Paul D. MacLean termed the reptilian brain, including subcortical structures of the basal ganglia plus the amygdala. These brain areas are associated with a "basic animality" that orchestrates species typical behavior, particularly involving courting, dominance, and territoriality. Such tendencies are occasionally manifested by young children, but they tend to be unwelcome and often lead to inhibition and suppression rather than careful tuition. Thus all else equal it is more difficult for the child to learn to understand and control reptilian feelings and desires, relative to more flexibly functioning emotions that are associated with limbic system brain structures, such as happiness, fear, sadness, and anger.
Reptilian emotions become particularly important with the physical maturation of sexuality, as the peer affectional system shades into the sexual affectional system at puberty. Newly circulating hormones and newly functioning neurochemicals bring forth new feelings and desires that are difficult to express and share, particularly with "official" socialization agents such as parents, teachers, and other adults; and even with peers. One of the many changes that typically takes place at this age is that the young person becomes a more frequent and involved consumer of media of all sorts: music, television, motion pictures, video games, and the Internet.
Mass media have been excoriated for their levels of sex and violence, and there has been a great deal of research on the possibly negative effects of sex and violence in media. The evidence suggests that media can have at least a temporary activating effect on both sexual and aggressive behavior, particularly among individuals more highly arousable in these areas. However, much less thought and research have been devoted to the motivation to expose oneself to sexual and violent content. What do young people--indeed people in general--find attractive in depictions of sex and violence? More generally, why do people choose to view negative media content: horror shows, tearjerkers, action shows that arouse feelings of indignation and strong anger?
A possible answer is that such depictions afford emotional education, allowing young people to experience rare and dangerous feelings via media models and to learn vicariously how to label, control, and otherwise deal with such feelings. It is noteworthy that sexual and violent themes in the arts are not new, but exist from Greek theatre, Shakespeare, and folklore such as Grimm's Fairy Tales to contemporary media from ultraviolent video games and Internet pornography to widely popular and accepted motion pictures (Titanic, Star Wars, Avatar) and soap operas. About 330 BCE, Aristotle in Poetics suggested that the "pleasure of tragedy" derives from imitation, exploration, and understanding of feelings of horror and pity. He wrote, "The general origin of poetry was due to two causes, each of them part of human nature. Imitation is natural to man from childhood...and it is also natural for all to delight in works of imitation. The truth of the second point is shown by experience: though the objects themselves may be painful to see, we delight to view the most realistic representations of them in art...The explanation is to be found in a further fact: to be learning something is the greatest of pleasures not only to the philosopher but also to the rest of mankind."
Aristotle quote from Poetics. In R. McKeon (Ed.), Introduction to Aristotle. New York: Modern Library, 1947. p. 627.