© 2005 Psychiatric Times. All rights reserved.
TV Violence and Brainmapping in Children
by John P. Murray, Ph.D.
Research conducted over the past 30 years leads to the conclusion that
televised violence does influence viewers' attitudes, values and
behavior (Hearold, 1986; Murray, 2000, 1994, 1973; Paik and Comstock,
1994; Surgeon General's Scientific Advisory Committee on Television and
Social Behavior, 1972). Although the social effect of viewing televised
violence is a controversial topic of research and discussion, the body
of research is extensive and fairly coherent in demonstrating
systematic patterns of influence. In general, there seem to be three
main classes of effects:
- Aggression. Viewing televised violence can lead to increases
in aggressive behavior and/or changes in attitudes and values favoring
the use of aggression to solve conflicts (Huston et al., 1992).
- Desensitization. Extensive violence viewing may lead
to decreased sensitivity to violence and a greater willingness to
tolerate increasing levels of violence in society (Drabman and Thomas,
1974; Thomas et al., 1977).
- Fear. Extensive exposure to television violence may
produce the "mean world syndrome," in which viewers overestimate their
risk of victimization (Gerbner, 1970; Gerbner et al., 1994).
Although we know that viewing televised violence can lead
to increases in aggressive behavior or fearfulness and to changed
attitudes and values about the role of violence in society, we need to
know more about how these changes occur in viewers -- the neurological
processes that lead to changes in social behavior.
Within the context of social learning theory, we know that changes in
behavior and thoughts can result from observing models in the world
around us, such as parents, peers or the mass media. The processes
involved in modeling or imitating overt behavior were addressed in
social learning theories from the 1960s (Bandura, 1969, 1965, 1962;
Berkowitz, 1965, 1962), but we must expand our research approaches if
we are to understand the neurological processes that might govern the
translation of the observed models into thoughts and actions.
Both Bandura (1994) and Berkowitz (1984) have provided some theoretical
foundations for the translation of communication events into thoughts
and actions. Bandura's social-cognitive approach and Berkowitz's
cognitive-neoassociation analysis posit a role for emotional arousal as
an "affective tag" that may facilitate lasting influences. With regard
to aggression, we know that viewing televised violence can be
emotionally arousing (e.g., Cline et al., 1973; Osborn and Endsley,
1971; Zillmann, 1982, 1971), but we lack direct measures of cortical
arousal or neuroanatomical patterns in relation to viewing violence.
The pursuit of neurological patterns in viewing violence would likely
start with the amygdala, because it has a well-established role in
controlling physiological responses to emotionally arousing or
threatening stimuli (Damasio, 1999, 1994; LeDoux, 1996; Ornstein,
1997). Indeed, a National Research Council report (Reiss and Roth,
All human behavior, including aggression and violence, is the outcome
of complex processes in the brain. Violent behaviors may result from
relatively permanent conditions or from temporary states...Biological
research on aggressive and violent behavior has given particular
attention tożfunctioning of steroid hormones such as testosterone and
glucocorticoids, especially their action on steroid receptors in the
brain;...neurophysiological (i.e., brain wave) abnormalities,
particularly in the temporal lobe of the brain; brain dysfunctions that
interfere with language processing or cognition.
Thus, one suggestion for further research on the
impact of viewing media violence is to assess some of its neurological
correlates. In particular, the use of videotaped violent scenes can
serve as the ideal stimulus for assessing activation patterns in
response to violence.
It is very likely that the amygdala is involved in processing violence,
but the projections to the cortex are not clear. However, developing
hypotheses about viewing violence and brain activation needs to start
with research on physiological arousal (e.g., Osborn and Endsley, 1971;
Zillmann, 1982; Zillmann and Bryant, 1994) and then link this to
cortical arousal. In this regard, the work of Paul Ekman, Ph.D., and
Richard Davidson, Ph.D., using electroencephalogram recordings while
subjects viewed gruesome films indicated asymmetries in activation
patterns in the anterior regions of the left and right hemispheres
(Davidson et al., 1990; Ekman and Davidson, 1993; Ekman et al., 1990).
In particular, positive affect (indexed by facial expression) was
associated with left-sided anterior activation, while negative affect
was associated with right-sided activation (Davidson et al., 1990).
Our preliminary research (Liotti et al., in press; Murray et al., 2001)
has focused on the amygdala and related structures in an effort to
identify the neurological correlates of viewing televised violence. In
this instance, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to
map the brains of eight children (five boys, three girls; aged 8 to 13
years) while they watched violent and nonviolent videotapes. The
violent video segments consisted of two, three-minute clips of boxing
from "Rocky IV." The nonviolent video segments were two, three-minute
clips of a National Geographic program on animals at play and
"Ghostwriter," a children's literacy program set in a mystery context.
In addition, we presented two, three-minute control, rest/fixation
clips of an "X" on a blue screen.
We conducted whole-brain (18 to 22 slices) echoplanar fMRI throughout
the 18 minutes of viewing. Following the viewing, structural or
anatomical (aMRI) images were acquired. Both the fMRI and aMRI images
were normalized to Talairach space, and statistical analyses were
conducted with task-induced blood oxygenation-level dependent (BOLD)
changes detected using a conventional statistical parametric mapping
method of voxel-wise independent paired t-tests.
In this study, we found that both violent and nonviolent viewing
activated regions implicated in aspects of visual and auditory
processing. In contrast, however, viewing violence selectively
recruited right precuneus, right posterior cingulate, right amygdala,
bilateral hippocampus and parahippocampus, bilateral pulvinar, right
inferior parietal and prefrontal, and right premotor cortex. Thus,
viewing televised violence appears to activate brain areas involved in
arousal/attention, detection of threat, episodic memory encoding and
retrieval, and motor programming. These findings are displayed in the Figure,
which provides the significant contrasts between the violence-viewing
and nonviolence-viewing sessions. The regions of interest in the
composite activations of the eight children included the amygdala,
hippocampus and posterior cingulate. These areas of the brain are
likely indicators of threat-perception and possible long-term memory
storage of the threat-event (particularly, these patterns are similar
to the memory storage of traumatic events in posttraumatic stress
disorder) (Brannan et al., 1997; Liotti et al., 2000). These activation
patterns are important because they demonstrate that viewing video
violence selectively activates right hemisphere and some bilateral
areas that collectively suggest significant emotional processing of
Of course, this is a preliminary study with a small sample of children,
and we must conduct further studies with larger samples of young
viewers. However, this preliminary research leads us to conclude that
there are important, theoretically predictable patterns of neurological
response to viewing media violence. In our next series of studies, we
will explore these neuroanatomical correlates of viewing violence in
children who have had differing experiences with violence in their
lives in order to better understand the processes of sensitization and
In this instance, we will assess the responses of children who have
experienced violence as victims of abuse, in contrast to youngsters who
are more aggressive. We also expect to see differences in response to
viewing violence among the abused, high-aggression and low-aggression
children. We expect to see increased responsiveness to threat in the
abused children and decreased responsiveness to threat in the
Furthermore we anticipate differences in media preferences and viewing
patterns to correlate with the level of aggression in these children.
This constellation of findings will begin to address the patterns of
response to aggression and the learning of aggression from media
models. The issues of desensitization and enhanced aggression may be
related to the patterns of brain activation observed in these children.
The social significance of brain mapping and violence viewing is the
contribution these studies make to our understanding of the learning
and cognitive/affective processing of aggression in children and youth.
Dr. Murray is professor of developmental psychology in the School of
Family Studies and Human Services at Kansas State University and
director of the Media and Mind Program at the Mind Science Foundation
in San Antonio. He is also a trustee of The Menninger Foundation.
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