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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 Pinterest.com. Heroes cast from insidetv.ew.com. Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor from mrtardis.deviantart.com. Television clip art from clker.com. Psychology Today logo from eileenkennedymoore.com. Brain image from ladyatheist.blogspot.com.