There is a long-standing debate as to whether violent television, movies, and video games impact a person’s tendency to behave aggressively, especially with children. While psychologists have performed most of the experiments looking into this issue, in the past several years, neuroscientists have begun to look at the effect that viewing such violence has on the brain. A 2007 study used fMRI scanning to observe changes in subjects’ brains after being exposed repeatedly to violent movie clips. These researchers found that after such exposure, there was decreased activity in the right lateral orbitofrontal cortex (right ltOFC), as well as less interaction between this area and the amygdala. This area has been associated with control and inhibition of inappropriate behaviors, such as reactive aggression. With these facts, the researchers concluded that exposure to violent media could lead to a decreased ability to control aggressive behaviors.
Just recently, another study on this topic was published that tried to study the emotional changes to the brain due to viewing violent material. In this study, 22 teenage boys were shown 60 short clips of violent material from movies while being scanned in an fMRI as well as having their skin conductance responses (SCR) measured through an electrode on one of their fingers. The results showed that as the subjects viewed more violent scenes, they became desensitized to the material they were seeing. This was shown on the brain scans, where emotional areas were progressively less active as more scenes had been viewed, as well as with the SCR, which showed lower responses indicating less emotional reaction over time. Also of note is that the subjects that showed the greatest desensitization were those who had the greatest exposure to violent movies, television, and video games in their everyday lives. These results led the researchers to conclude that viewing violent material could “make an adolescent less sensitive to violence, more accepting of violence, and more likely to commit aggressive acts” due to a suppressed emotional reaction to real-life violent situations.
These two studies, along with the host of other literature on this subject, definitely have a profound relevance for the field of law as aggressive behavior often relates to criminal behavior. But what is the legal system to do with such knowledge? While it is clear that this type of evidence can help us to explain why some people behave as they do, it also seems that it would be difficult to convince a jury that it should be a mitigating factor, as participating in viewing such violent media is seen as a voluntary choice. And it would also be very difficult to try to reduce the amount of violent media witnessed by adolescents, as it has become such a prominent part of our culture. The movies with the shock value of violence, or the video games where the player gets to attack or kill, seem to be wildly successful and so they will continue to be produced. But with all the genetic and environmental factors that we can’t control that can make us more prone to committing criminal acts, wouldn’t it be nice if we could eliminate one that is under our control?