Although research has shown some correlation between exposure to media violence and real-life violent behavior, for many, the question that has remained unanswered is: What effect does this have on our brains?
Looking to answer this question, researchers at Columbia University Medical Center’s Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) Research Center showed one group of subjects several short clips from popular movies depicting acts of violence. Another group watched non-violent but equally engaging movies depicting scenes of horror or physical activity.
The results were compelling. Using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), the researchers demonstrated that, after subjects watched the violent video clips the right lateral orbitofrontal cortex, an area of the brain responsible for suppressing behaviors like inappropriate or unwarranted aggression became less active. Less activation in this network was characteristic of subjects who also reported an above average tendency to behave aggressively on a personality test. Moreover, the researchers also found that after repeated viewings of violence, an area of the brain associated with planning behaviors became more active (Hirsch et al., 2017).
“These changes in the brain’s behavioral control circuits were specific to the repeated exposure to the violent clips” (Hirsch, 2017).
What we can ascertain from these findings is that viewing violent media makes us more prone to violence, but at the same time, less able to take steps to inhibit our aggressive behavior.
“Our findings demonstrate for the first time that watching media depictions of violence does influence processing in parts of the brain that control behaviors like aggression. This is an important finding, and further research should examine very closely how these changes affect real-life behavior” (Kelly, 2017).
Will viewing violent media make someone who is otherwise not predisposed to aggression violent? Probably not. However, the reality is that media is swayed toward sensationalized depictions of violence, which, when viewed, activate parts of our brain that are not associated with pleasant feelings like joy, engagement, gratitude, and compassion.
For me, the choice is clear. I’d simply rather watch, or better yet, do, something that gives me a sense of meaning and enjoyment — and probably activates those parts of my brain.