Armchair Shell Shock

People are often unprepared for the elemental emotions that emerge from watching tragic news segments and respond by emotionally turning off.

By PT Staff, published March 1, 1992 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

There's a new form of battle fatigue for the 21st century, observes author and neurologist Richard Restak. And you don't have to serve on the front to get it. "You just have to own a television set," Restak says. "And that means we're all potential casualties."

You once had to be in a war to see people blown apart by bombs. Now, the author says, these are the kinds of things that the rest of us routinely watch on the seven o'clock news. These vivid and emotionally depleting images enter our brain and "detonate like a terrorist's bomb," Restak observes in his book, The Brain Has a Mind of Its Own.

Watching tragedy on the news has a psychological impact undreamed of by media executives. The video image is processed directly by the right hemisphere of the brain, bypassing language, reason, and logic. Unable to cope with the barrage of elemental emotions that get aroused, we emotionally turn off, numbing ourselves to pain and death.

Restak says he would worry about his kid if she witnessed a plane crash. And now he worries about her "peace of mind as she copes with a daily exposure to calamity on TV," which, he concludes,can be dangerous to mental health. Maybe that's why so many people are desperately searching for a game show.