Violence: Watching vs Reading About It

©2017 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

I have been asked about the difference between watching a violent movie and reading about violence. This question has even more relevance this week, when thinking about watching the news about the Las Vegas mass shooting and reading about it.

Question from Reader: When watching a violent movie, the brain has trouble differentiating from it processing it as an actual personal experience, whereas when reading about a similar event, it is more able to differentiate. I am desperate to find the research about this. (I know there is plenty of research about how watching violence affects the brain, I am more looking for the direct comparison to how the brain processes the information as compared to reading, specifically.)

I usually talk about the issue of imitative violence when talking about mirror neurons and the right amygdala. They seem to (mostly unconsciously) see and hear other people’s behavior, so that we ourselves become more capable of mirroring (doing and saying) what has been OBSERVED and HEARD. The difference with reading, is that you are thinking about other’s behavior, rather than SEEING and HEARING it, so it has a different type of impact on the brain and our memories, which have not SEEN and HEARD the behavior in full sound and color.  Also, the conscious thinking involved in reading usually adds our “thoughts” as we proceed (“oh, that’s a good idea” and “oops, that’s a really bad idea”), whereas what you observe is simply absorbed whole at the time.

The right amygdala is apparently much more sensitive to facial expressions of fear and anger, triggering fearful or angry responses in our right amygdala, and a call to action for the body.  On the other hand, reading about an event seems to occur primarily in the left hemisphere, so that action responses are not triggered and there are no actual observations or sounds to be remembered.

Here’s a mirror neuron quote which I find helpful from the first book I read about mirror neurons. Note the importance of the word “OBSERVING:”

“Most discussions of imitative violence distinguish between the short-term effects of watching media violence and the long-term effects. Clearly, classical mirror neurons and super mirror neurons are plausibly involved with two of the short-term effects: immediate imitation of violent behavior and a general arousal owing to observing violence. We have already seen in several contexts the pervasive nature of human imitation and the critical role of mirror neurons in this imitation. The neural properties of these cells can easily explain the immediate imitation of violent behavior, especially simple acts of violence, just as they explain, as we have seen, the mirroring of smiling, foot shaking, face rubbing, and so on….

Consider now the long-term effects of media violence. Classically, these have been ascribed to complex forms of imitation in which individuals observing aggressive behavior not only acquire complex coordinated motor behaviors that make them aggressive and violent but also become convinced in the process—in an unconscious way—that such behavior is a good way of solving social problems.”  (Emphasis added)

  • Marco Iacoboni, Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect with Others (2008), pp. 210-211.

Just think about your memories of the events of 9/11. Do you remember reading about it? Or do you remember the horrifying images of buildings falling, people screaming and running, and fire and police sirens? That’s my memories. We don’t wake up from nightmares visualizing a newspaper or book. It’s the images and sounds we saw and heard once upon a time.

With this in mind, it’s easy to see how this week’s visual and audio news (with its police sirens, crowds of people running, people screaming, holding bloody companions, photos of the shooter, photos of his many guns) will be imprinted on our brains for years to come. But for some, it will add to their thinking about imitating this behavior themselves someday—sooner or later. There’s lots of knowledge about these mass shooters, such as how they watched the news about prior shootings. While they also kept newspaper clippings (the Sandy Hook shooter of school children apparently had quite a collection), it seems to be the visual and audio memories that really teach people how to be violent in the future. And apparently, internet videos of violence are what the Columbine school shooters watched for weeks or months before that terrible event.

When the police and news media search for a motive for a horrendous mass shooting, I think they’re asking the wrong question. Instead, they should ask what they watched in the years leading up to their evil deeds. What was their training? Advertising works—that’s why companies pay millions of dollars to get their visual message on TV. And nowadays, if you want to get your message across, make a video and put it on YouTube. Companies use training videos more and more to teach people how to do their jobs. Images last. Faces and voices register even without you having to think about it. We just absorb all of this stuff through our mirror neurons and right amygdala.

Isn’t this what we’re teaching the next shooters? If you want to stop or reduce these mass shootings, take the story off the TV and restrict the reporting to the third page of the local newspaper! (But leave out the photo and name of the shooter.) That should stop them cold.

BILL EDDY, LCSW, ESQ. is the co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, California. He pioneered the High Conflict Personality Theory (HCP) and is viewed globally as the leading expert on managing disputes involving people with high conflict personalities. He has written more than twenty books on the topic and has taught professionals in the U.S. and more than ten countries.

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