Violence, The Media And Your Brain

How media violence from movies to TV to video games adversely affects the brain.

Posted Sep 02, 2013

In virtually every aspect of today's entertainment world (TV, movies, video games, music) violence is ubiquitous and often glorified.

Suspension of disbelief is entertaining. Sitting passively and watching “The Dark Knight Rises” or playing Grand Theft Auto is a fun way to relax and forget about real life for a bit. Where’s the harm in that?

The evidence continues to mount that it’s not all good. A study by the Indiana University School of Medicine examined young men and violent media exposure. There were visible alterations in MRI brain scans after only one week of playing a violent video game. In particular, there was a significant decrease in the activation of prefrontal portions of the brain and a greater activation of the amygdala.

A quick neuroscience lesson: The prefrontal cortex is the so called “thinking part” of the brain which deals with concentration, decision making, self-control and inhibition while the amygdala is part of the limbic system, the so called “emotion center” that serves many emotional functions, but can be the trigger for depression, anger, aggression and impulsive behavior.

To my knowledge this is the first prospective study showing actual brain differences in those that play a violent video game versus those who do not.

Of course, just because the brain has changed does not prove causality. If it were all bad, we would be dealing with millions of aggressive, violent young killers, and that's simply not the case.

But the findings are intriguing and beg the question: Does an activation of the limbic system and an inhibition of the prefrontal cortex predispose to violent behavior? This is a relatively easy proposition to test and I suspect we will see more studies soon.

Other interesting studies:

The Virginia Tech Research Division showed students several non-violent movies, followed by super-violent movies. Results indicated violent films can increase hostile behavior.

The University of Alabama conducted a similar study and obtained similar results. The results also indicated the aggressive behavior didn't occur just after viewing, but remained with the individuals for "quite some time." The study concludes with a caution for parents that immature and/or aggressive children should not have access to violent films.

The Macquarie University Children and Families Research Centre found that children who watch violent movies are more likely to view the world as an unsympathetic, malicious and scary place and that this stimulates aggression. It also suggests children are more likely to exhibit combative behavior while becoming desensitized to violence. Reportedly, the MRI brain scans of children who have viewed film or television violence had a similar look when compared to those who have violently acted out.

For every study, there will always be a naysayer screaming foul. A gory video game or violent TV show can be a great babysitter. This means Junior is more likely to be happy staying at home, supposedly “out of trouble”. Also, globally the video game industry brought in $66 billion in 2012 and 85% percent of these games contain some violence. Of course, money is often the ultimate incentive to maintain the status quo.

Brain changes, aggressive behavior, poor decision making. As the evidence continues to mount, the whole process is reminiscent of when cigarette smoking first became linked to cancer, emphysema and lung disease. Just about everyone sensed it was true, but big money tobacco companies kept funding study after study that all claimed there was just no “proof”.

Fifty years from now, we will all look back and wonder why it took so long -- the evidence was just so overwhelming. In the meantime, lawmakers are currently proposing an increased tax on the sales of violent video games. The money raised would fund mental health programs and research into how to prevent mass shootings.

While researchers offer more and more evidence, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) which represents the six largest (and most profitable) Hollywood studios stepped up recently and announced they would do their part by…… enlarging the font of the R in the ratings of movies. Well, that should solve the problem. Seriously, MPAA?

Denial is a powerful tool. Just like smokers who have a developed rationality on why it’s okay to keep puffing away, many parents/people will take the same stance on media violence with a plethora of reasons as to why it’s really no big deal. We often continue doing things we know aren't good for us, because it's the path of least resistance and heck, everyone else is doing it too, so how bad can it really be?

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