Your Brain on Violence: The Movement toward Connection or Isolation
[This has become the fourth essay on violence in our culture and entertainment. I wrote a tanget Fight, Flight, Freeze (or Flirt)) last week. This essay follows: Violence in Entertainment and When Entertainment Violence Works. The next essay should be: Do we live in a Violent Society? Unless I change my mind or go off on another tangent.]
Not everyone can handle violence in entertainment. I use the word “handle” broadly to mean: deal with, be immune to, ignore, enjoy, viscerally respond to, or mentally differentiate between real and simulated violence. For some people entertainment violence overwhelms them or disengages them. There seems to be an increase in those who can’t handle portrayed violence. That’s creating a problem.
Response to violence seems to sit on a spectrum passing from those who feel too much to those who have become numb to the violence. This spectrum is shaped like a classic bell curve with the majority of people in the middle having what might be called a healthy relationship to entertainment violence. (I’ll circle back to that phrase.) The challenge is that our bell curve is beginning to peal with the people on the edges who cannot manage the violence in entertainment.
On one side the curve declines to a very small number of people whose response to violence inspires them to be violent. On the other side, the curve declines to a small number of people who are traumatized (or re-traumatized) by viewing violence. While this seems most obvious on the side of the curve where young men commit unspeakably violent acts, there is also significant damage on the side of the curve where people are hyper-sensitive to portrayed violence. It seems that these two groups are growing in new recruits.
I contend that the conflict between the two hemispheres of our brains is causing this rise. Our forebrain is divided into two hemispheres which are physically similar but operate in a vastly different manner from each other. The right hemisphere thinks all-at-one-time, it specializes in visio-spatial processing, external stimuli and emotions. The left hemisphere thinks in a one-at-a-time manner and specializes in the symbols, abstraction and internal stimuli. [For more information on two sides of our brains, please see my series on the The Teeter Totter of our Brains] The two hemispheres of our brain are in conflict in our culture as we transition to what is coming next. This cognitive dissonance is causing some people to choose sides. They depend more fully on one side of their brain over the other, losing the intended relative balance between the two. They unconsciously buy into the world view of one side of their brain over the other.
A feature of right brain thinking is to see ourselves as interconnected and part of the whole of all existence. The right brain does not see itself as an individual, it emphases its place in the community. It manages most of the emotions, other than anger. Hyper-sensitive individuals over empathize with others and perceive the violence is happening to them directly. This might be natural preference or caused by some kind of trauma.[i] Entertainment violence feels real and the people or animals who are being harmed feel real and in some unexplainable way a part of them. They have a hard time differentiating between what is real and what is fiction. Awareness of this proclivity causes many to avoid these activities. In the extreme, even a glimpse of portrayed violence overloads the emotional and empathetic response causing the person to become numb or shut down. In some cases, the person harms themselves and others feeling like an animal trapped desperate for their lives.
On the left side of the brain, abstract thinking creates an idea that the self is the only entity in the universe. More than the self, the brain itself is the only reality. The external world, the other people, and the very chair you are sitting on are projections of the brains reality. The non-reality of media entertainment suggests this experience of the world and video games confirm it. Individuals who have deeply gone over to the left side negate the right brain’s experience of the world and that there is an external world. This disassociation tells this person that those injured by violence are not real. Empathy is shut down, because others are merely abstractions. This response joins with the emotions primarily managed by the left brain, anger and fear. I think this is what is occurring in those individuals who have taken guns and killed so many people.
I can’t confirm that the escalation in entertainment violence is directly causing the rise of people on hemispheric extremes. The ongoing conflict between and polarization of the two sides of our brain is a product of our transition from the Modern era to what is coming Next. However, I know that the increase in portrayed violence is a contributing impact on the few. The “cure” for individuals and our culture is to continue to find the balance between the two hemispheres. We need to be able to live in the middle of the two vital world views the sides of our brains, live between the opposites.
Violence in Entertainment is helpful to our society. It helps us experience, learn from and participate in our impulse for violence without being violent. Without it, we couldn’t live in cities and we wouldn’t be civilized. But, how much and what kind of portrayed violence is healthy for individuals and our society? I feel as if we have lost the balance in portrayed violence in the same way we have lost the balanced relationship between the two sides of our brain. If we can’t right the system, we will have more people who can’t handle violence and we will all experience more actual violence.
[i] I believe that post-traumatic stress disorder involves a skewed relationship of the two hemispheres of the brain, though I don’t have the science or research to make any substantial claims. My intuition tells me it is related and possible therapies could be honed by paying attention to the two hemispheres.