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January 7, 2002

Research conducted over the past 30 years has shown that televised violence does influence viewers' attitudes, values and behavior. Now scientists have shown the areas of the brain that produce these effects.

Past research has shown that there seem to be three main areas of influence: aggression, desensitization and fear.

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.
Desensitization. Extensive violence viewing may lead to decreased sensitivity to violence and a greater willingness to tolerate increasing levels of violence in society.
Fear. Extensive exposure to television violence may produce the "mean world syndrome," in which viewers overestimate their risk of victimization.
The exact neurological processes which led to these changes was unknown. However recent developments in the technology of what is called "brain-mapping" have enabled researchers to actually look inside the brain to see what was going on while people watched violent and non-violent TV. The results have been published in Psychiatric Times.

A team led by John Murray, PhD, professor of developmental psychology at Kansas State University, 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, they presented two, three-minute control, rest/fixation clips of an "X" on a blue screen.

They conducted whole-brain fMRI throughout the 18 minutes of viewing. In this study, they 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.

In this way they found that viewing televised violence appears to activate brain areas involved in arousal/attention, detection of threat, episodic memory encoding and retrieval, and motor programming.

The regions of interest in the brain scans 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 post-traumatic stress disorder).

"These activation patterns are important" says Dr Murray, "because they demonstrate that viewing video violence selectively activates right hemisphere and some bilateral areas that collectively suggest significant emotional processing of video violence."

In other words viewing TV violence can have the same effect on the brain as living in a violent home or neighborhood.

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