Am I Desensitized?

Recently, I watched a bunch of movies where many people were shot or killed in some other way or beaten severely. I also finished reading an urban fantasy novel in which a reluctant werewolf was tasked with hunting and dispatching several vampires who slaughtered multiple people. Very gritty. But when I sat down to watch an adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel, Emma (1996), the other night, I couldn’t get into at first. Now, I love this movie. But switching gears mentally to watch it took time. After a few tries, I was able to watch the whole movie without twitching.


Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma Woodhouse with Jeremy Northam as Mr. Knightley

doctor_who___2005_teaser_by_mrtardis-d34dd4oWondering why? I’ll get to that in a minute. Let me preface by explaining that I once went five years without watching much television at all—only special news broadcasts (like the 9/11 coverage) and Doctor Who, a BBC show geared toward families. So its violence quotient was low. And I watched Doctor Who on DVD after the whole season was released, rather than each week. This was prior to the start of the first season of Heroes on NBC in 2006. Actually, Heroes was the first network show I watched when I decided to return to network TV watching. I binged on the first season online, having missed the shows when they first aired.


Though I really enjoyed the show, I was shocked at the violence and gore. If you’ve seen the first season of Heroes, maybe it seems a bit tame compared to shows on HBO or Netflix. But having given up TV for years, I hadn’t realized how programming had evolved.

The fact that I was shocked may seem ironic to you when I clue you in on my history. I grew up in an area of Chicago that many deem unsafe due to gang violence. I heard gunshots many times, sometimes on holidays when people would fire guns as part of their celebration. My family wound up moving due to drive-by shootings that happened on our block.

During a visit to an aunt’s house one evening in a south suburb when I was a kid, the sound of gunfire shattered the night. My father ordered us to stay inside while he and my uncle went to investigate. Turns out a man down the street had made a serious attempt to kill his entire family. One child miraculously escaped. The police arrived along with ambulances. My family went to the hospital with the surviving child who had been grazed by a bullet.

The horror of that experience stayed with me for a long time. I couldn’t help thinking about it two months ago. While visiting my family in the Houston area, the breaking news story was the extradition of a young man accused of murdering his entire family, one of which was a five-year-old. You can find that story here. Interestingly enough, several years ago, I had heard this young man’s father, an Episcopal priest, preach at a church. Now he’d been murdered.

Psychology-Today-logoI was horrified, but the horror faded quicker than it did when I was a kid. And with my recent diet of violent movies, I have to wonder if I’ve become desensitized. The answer, according to psychological studies quoted here, here, and in an article at the Psychology Today website, is yes. You can find that 2013 article here. The study discusses the effects of violent media on the brain. The article describes this finding:

There was a significant decrease in the activation of prefrontal portions of the brain and a greater activation of the amygdala.

The amygdala is where emotions come from while the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that helps us concentrate. This is why I had trouble adjusting to the slower pace of Emma at first. Want to see another study on the subject? Click here for one at the Mount Sinai Hospital website.


Please keep in mind that I am pointing the finger at myself and no one else. I know when my attitude shifts after a steady diet of one form of media. Maybe you can handle it, but I can’t after awhile. And yes, I know the difference between real-life violence and the Hollywood version of it.

Giving up TV in the early part of the century helped me get a lot of writing done. You know what? I didn’t really miss watching TV during those years. It’s funny what you get used to when you break a habit.


Though I’m looking forward to seeing The Avengers: Age of Ultron, I think I’ll cut back on the violent media until then. I need a dip in calmer waters.

Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma Woodhouse and Jeremy Northam as Mr. Knightley from Heroes cast from Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor from Television clip art from Psychology Today logo from Brain image from

58 thoughts on “Am I Desensitized?

  1. Such terrible events in your childhood neighbourhood, I know we’ve spoke of them before. Why was it you gave up tv, was it to write? What made you return? I do believe we are desensitised to violence today, unfortunately our children too. Incidentally, I was speaking to someone recently about violence and kids television. Tom and Jerry was highlighted-Tom frequently pursuing Jerry brandishing hammers and axes.

    • Hi, Andy. I gave up TV, because I have a contract to write a four-book series and contracts for single titles. My imagination is enhanced when I read, rather than when I watch TV or a movie. So I gave up TV so that I could feed my mind’s eye by reading books. I returned to watching TV because I’d heard about Heroes. I love superheroes, so that show seemed right up my alley. I still limit the amount of TV shows I watch. I can only follow one or two shows, because I have a number of meetings in the evenings and miss the broadcasts. Also, if I’m writing, I don’t want to have to stop and turn on the TV. 😀

  2. Yes . . . I should read more than the title. Give me a few minutes:

    Still yes. We’re exposed to a lot of violence and death, so it becomes part of the background. It isn’t even fictional media that does this. For example, out of every news article in the paper to get the front page a few days ago in my area, it was ‘4 Dead From Carbon Monoxide’. Tragic, but it wasn’t suicide unless that changed over the weekend. One of the people in the house seemed to leave a car running in the connecting garage. Still, that’s the big thing to sell the paper. Nothing happy and positive. War, drugs, violence, politics, and all the messy stuff are tossed into our eyes. Rather difficult to not get desensitized, yet we blame fictional stuff before everything else. I’m ranting here. Oops.

    My point is that we’re living in a world where everything appears to be designed for desensitizing people. At least to violence and death.

    • You make a good point, Charles. When I was in the Houston area, most of the news stories dealt with horrific murders and other violent crimes. So yes, everything seems designed to desensitize all of us.

      But I have to cite what I’ve watched lately. I’m not blaming the people who made these movies. And no one forced me to watch them or to read what I read. As a matter of fact, I own most of these on DVD and Blu-ray. But I oversaturated myself with them. I need to pull back for now.

      • Sad thing is that their intention is to get a burst of attention from the audience, but they keep making it harder and harder. What shocked one generation has no effect on the younger ones.

        Good idea on pulling back. I find myself jumping between actions and comedies to avoid getting sick of them.

      • I always recommend the Marx Brothers, but that’s really old school. Miyazaki is a tough one to get through when you’re trying to remain happy. At least for me.

      • They’re hilarious.
        Miyazaki’s movies, with the exception of Princess Mononoke, always make me smile, even when they’re very poignant. Such vivid details!!! (I like Princess Mononoke. But it’s very intense.)

      • Mononoke was the first one I saw, so that’s what I think of first. I liked Spirited Away at first, but I found I wasn’t really into it the second time through. Nausica is one I need to see again.

    • I stopped watching the news on TV about 25 years ago when I watched a newscast of a bank robbery where armed robbers held hostages. During negotiations with police, one of the gunmen took a hostage out and sat him on a short wall and then shot him. The news showed the whole thing. I can still see that image in my mind today.

      • They really don’t try to hide anything, which is scary with the 24 hour stuff. When my son walks into the room, I’m quicker with the remote if its the news on than something fictional. I think because the real stuff would be harder to explain to a 5-year-old.

      • I’m amazed at how many small children I’ve seen at some pretty violent films. 😦 My thought was maybe the parents couldn’t get a babysitter. But I know I would have had nightmares at some scenes. Images can stay with you.

      • I agree. I think there was a ten-year-old at Furious 7. Not that violent and very few cursing, but it was odd. The worst has to be watching a Rated R movie (forgot which) and a baby started crying in the audience.

      • I’ve seen kids at too many questionable movies. I even heard a kid complain to a parent that he was scared. And this was during a fight scene in which a decapitation happened. Did they get up and leave for the sake of the child? Nope. The parents just sat there.

  3. I hear what you’re saying, L. Marie. I often feel that the more “entertainment” we watch (TV or movie), the more desensitized we become if the fodder of the entertainment is violence. I remember when CSI (the series set in Las Vegas) first aired, I got hooked on it almost immediately. Same with Criminal Minds. But the violence and gore quotient got ridiculous. I sensed that the writers, producers, etc., were using more gratuitous violence with each episode, as if they were competing with each other. I stopped watching both after awhile because I got sick of it. It seems I can only be desensitized to a point before I have to quit for my own sanity. While we’re beset with news of violence in real life every day, it’s easier to not pick up that newspaper, not listen to the radio news, not be a news junkie and surf the internet during my breaks at work. My TV time is my time to relax for awhile with my husband, but we’re watching TV less and less. Of course, our weather is now nice enough for us to have dinner on our back porch. Our entertainment becomes watching the birds flit around, having their own dinner before night falls.

    • Dinner on your back porch sounds wonderful!!! I love sitting outside listening to the birds. There are many trees where I live. Lots of birds to listen to. 🙂

      My mother said the same thing about Criminal Minds. She stopped watching for that reason. I used to watch Law and Order faithfully in the 90s, but stopped.

    • I used to watch the original CSI too and enjoyed it. Like you mentioned, it started getting more and more grisly and graphic. It wasn’t just with the violence either. I stopped watching when the NY version did a show focused on bungee sex. That was more than enough for me.

  4. This is one of the reasons that, as an avid reader of crime novels, I’ve become more and more concerned about the level of graphic, often senseless, violence in them over the years, particularly towards women. I do think it’s desensitizing and also normalises behaviour that shouldn’t ever be seen as normal. I guess working with boys with behavioural difficulties made me much more hardline about the images they are subjected to – it’s hard for example to try to get them not to swear when every book or film is full of it, and if they’re affected by the language they see and hear, why wouldn’t they be affected by the violence too?

    • Wow. You have a tough job. Many of the studies talked about how children are heavily influenced by these images. I’ve seen kids act out after watching even somewhat innocuous cartoons, especially those where the characters hit each other.

      I know when I’ve reached a point where I need to take a step back. In order to be at a settled place where I can adequately write the book I’m working on, I need to scale back on images of high intensity. Otherwise, I’ll be twitching all day, instead of writing.

      • Ah, I don’t do it any more. It was tough but could also be very fulfilling and great fun! But it definitely changed my views on all kinds of messages that the adult world sends out to its young people.

    • It continually amazes me that with all the studies done and the simple logic that if what we see on TV doesn’t affect us then why do companies spend millions of dollars on advertising on TV, people still insist that a diet of violent shows won’t hurt society. I would add that many shows also feature other worrisome trends such as the denigration of families (and often this involves making fun of men and fathers), the glorification of casual sex, victimization of women, disrespectful kids, etc. Of course, I’m old and prude so what do I know?

  5. I do think we become desensitized, L. Marie; through movies, television, and, unfortunately, through life’s experiences. What we experience as children has to have an effect on us. I’m so sorry that you were witness to such violence, as do more and more children each year.

    I find most of my television viewing is on PBS and, yes, the gentler Hallmark channels. The criminal/detective shows mentioned in some of the comments are so violent, I find myself distressed. What worries me about them is that more people aren’t distressed. The fact that they often deal with violence to women is even more disturbing to me. Desensitized? Yep.

    You have such thoughtful and thought-provoking readers – ditto to your posts. Thank you.

    • Thanks, Penny! I really needed your recent flower post. It had a calming effect on me. 🙂
      I usually hit Hallmark and PBS pretty hard, though I haven’t headed to PBS recently. I’m probably the only person on earth who hasn’t seen Downton Abbey. I’d like to see it eventually. But I’m afraid I’d become obsessed with it like Call the Midwife. Once I finish another book or so, I might take it up.

  6. I won’t watch “R” rated movies if the R-rating is for violence. I stick with PG-13 violence or less.

    I tend to enjoy murder mysteries like Death in Paradise and Elementary where the violence is the back drop and the focus is on solving the crime.

    • I love a cozy murder mystery. I haven’t seen either show. Will have to add to my Netflix queue.
      I love my superhero shows and movies. But after awhile, I get a bit jaded and need to pull back.

      • We bumped into Death in Paradise about 3 weeks ago on PBS. It’s quirky and fun and the the island setting is gorgeous.

        Elementary is a modern day Sherlock Holmes set in NYC. Watson is Dr. Joan Watson played by Lucy Liu.

      • I love a quirky show. Have you ever read Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons or seen the movie? That’s quirky with a capital Q.

      • Yay! I have some stuff to add to my queue as well!! I need to replace some stuff in it. My goodness, I have a lot of stuff on it from which I need to take a break!

  7. Good post, Linda. If we look back in history and even modern times (places like Haiti and the neighborhood you grew up in), desensitization is a real thing. Is it good or bad? Like most things, I think there’s a fine line. Maybe we shouldn’t be desensitized to some of these things in the sense that we ought to see the world as it really is? But we also shouldn’t be desensitized to the level of not caring about living in a civilized world.

    And it’s true what you say about getting used to things when you’re forced to break a habit.. It was tough at first, but since Angus was born, I don’t miss video games so much anymore. I’d rather focus my limited “me time” on reading and creating. Not that I don’t miss the games occasionally, but I think I had a serious addiction problem for awhile.

    • Phillip, I know what you mean. I quit playing videogames too, because they took up too much time. I even successfully hid my Nintendo 2DS so that I couldn’t even find it for a long time. When I found it, I didn’t have the urge to play anything on it. 🙂 But I’m sure Angus is glad you’re focusing on him. 🙂

      I think to an extent, we’ve all seen so many horrible things. Nine/eleven ushered that in. Some of this is our way of coping with life’s tragedies.

  8. Great post Linda. It can be really hard to see those effects in ourselves. I quit watching TV when we rearranged rooms in our house and the TV ended up in a room without connection to an antenna (we’ve never bothered with cable or satellite). Every now and then, we’ll hook up a computer and watch something on Netflix or watch a DVD or (gasp!) a VHS tape. We had a blast with another family and my 5 year-old grandson watching The Great Race the other night. (the best pie fight on film) I don’t really miss it at all and I find the atmosphere in the home to be much calmer.

    I read about a study years ago where they had college students play video games and then staged an emergency where someone would need assistance just outside the door. They found that those playing the violent games were far less likely to help the victim than those who weren’t. They were less sympathetic to the victim as well. The level of violence in media (including non-fiction) has skyrocketed.

  9. Several things.

    1. I love you. You are an amazing friend, and I’m so thankful for you.

    2. I loved Emma. In spite of GOOP. I almost never regret watching well done period dramas.

    3. I’m going to Houston at the end of September for book events. A book club invited me, and I’m looking to line up more stuff. If you have a reason to be there, let’s talk about trying to line up a joint something.

    4. I’ll watch anything. As a recovering theater person, I’ve always been fascinated by special effects, and I manage to analyze them while watching blood and gore. I don’t know what that’s doing to my brain………

  10. Hmmm…

    I’m a bit torn on this topi, partly because, though the media has gotten more violent, in many places “real” violence is actually diminishing. This isn’t to say that there aren’t tragic crimes and a lot of suffering doesn’t come from them, but that over the expanse of human history… we’re probably the closest to that “kinder, gentler society” than w ever have been.

    So… is this virtual violence our social version of trying to sneak the habit? Is it just a new step in the cycle of being open about our humanity/hiding our humanity/being open about our humanity, etc?

    I don’t have any answers. I just know… violence for its own sake or for attention doesn’t appeal to me personally anymore than swearing does for those reasons. Call me a prude, but… I like it when there are layers of meaning and purpose behind actions.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Eden. I’m not a fan of gratuitous violence either. I don’t have any answers either. I’d love to see more random acts of kindness.

  11. Interesting. I like violent movies. I also like thinky movies like Emma, but I don’t seem to have trouble switching between the two. (Which may be nothing but an advantage of ADHD). I think it’s very important to be self-aware enough to know when something is causing negative thought patterns, though. I watched CSI and Criminal Minds for a while, because I love mysteries and they sort of counted as long as i treated all the cop stuff like fantasy. But I started to be afraid for my kids alllll the time. I’m not particularly prone to fear of people (dinosaurs, however, terrify me, it turns out), so it was odd for me to be so fearful of others. As you may imagine, I stopped watching the shows and I haven’t missed them a bit. Kudos to you for recognizing the pattern. 🙂

  12. Something for us to mull over Linda. We even get desensitized when we’re ‘bombarded’ with images of war and disaster from the news media. We tend to have a generic compassion that says, “Poor you.” I believe that what we expose ourselves to constantly- see, hear, speak – can shape us.

    • I hear you. What I was constantly exposed to had made me twitchy and irritable. I needed to detox just as I did when I quit videogames cold turkey. Perhaps we bombard ourselves with images because we’re afraid to face the emptiness inside of us. (Okay. I can only speak for myself. I needed to face what’s inside of me.)

  13. Pingback: Films with Rounded Edges | El Space–The Blog of L. Marie

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