Trained for Violence: How Video Games Affect the Brain

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The brain is a very adaptable organ. It has the cognitive ability to adapt to stress, whether real or imagined, but do violent video games and movies actually help us to adapt to a sadistic world, or help to create one?

Gamers and researchers have been on both sides of this argument, but with all the advances in brain imaging and the new studies in neuroplasticity, it seems hard to deny that old axiom that what goes in must come out. Part of the problem is that our brains are so adaptable, and a relatively new study coming out of the University of Missouri (U of M) shows that violent video games appear to make people more aggressive and desensitized to the violence that we see in our every day world. While this finding seems obvious, it is still relatively groundbreaking in science to understand that the relationship between our mind and our subjective experience actually has physical effects on our body and brain, effects that are dramatic and can even be enduring.

The Mind is Everything. What You Think You Become. – Buddha

If you’ve ever played ‘Halo,’ (which consequently raked in over $300 million in sales in the first two weeks of its release), ‘Call of Duty,’ or ‘Grand Theft Auto’ the last of which you can actually slap a grandmother and steal her purse, then you have likely desensitized your brain to real life acts of aggression and violence. The longer you sit before violent images and the more frequently you play, apparently the more desensitized you get. With findings like these, it is no wonder that young adults growing up in a world of progressive violence and disregard for their peers and community seems like just another average day.

According to the U of M study, even people who don’t normally play video games were still affected by playing violent games.

Part of the reason these findings may have merit is due to the way that empathy and compassion normally develop in a human being. We already know that those who have experienced violence or abuse in their childhoods are much more likely to perpetuate it on others as they become adults themselves. Sex offenders, for example, have a glaringly high incident rate of having lived thorough sexual misconduct themselves, even though not all offenders were molested themselves. In this example, a child does not learnt to develop empathy for another’s well-being, as is normally the case in someone’s developmental progress, which was not impeded by such an atrocity in their most important years. A loss of innocence is truly a sad thing, since empathy is a “potential psychological motivator for helping others in distress” as pointed out by a psychologists who conducted a study at the University of Miami. The authors go on to explain:

“Early theorists suggested that young children were too egocentric or otherwise not cognitively able to experience empathy (Freud 1958; Piaget 1965). However, a multitude of studies have proven that very young children are, in fact, capable of displaying a variety of rather sophisticated empathy related behaviors. (Zahn-Waxler et al.1979; Zahn-Waxler et al. 1992a; Zahn-Waxler et al.). . .One typical way of measuring empathy and its precursors in young children is to examine their response to another’s distress.”

While video games may teach our children to have better hand-eye coordination, or even improve their detail-oriented vision, they certainly don’t teach many valuable lessons, especially not the most popular games played by children and young adults today. 90% of children play video games today, and even though the average age of a gamer is 33, they still are affecting the collective brain of society. After one month’s release of ‘Black Ops’, it had been played for 600 million hours worldwide. In half as many hours the planet could be trilingual. Where are the video games about meeting moral challenges, learning a new language, planting fields of healthy food with age-old organic methods, or even teaching the brain how to transcend itself with meditative calm?

In 2013 ‘Grand Theft Auto’ was named a top seller. In it people run around a corrupt city stealing cars and conducting heists. Another popular game is called ‘The Last of Us’ and in this video game, infected human beings following a pandemic which takes place on the planet earth, run around killing each and harming one another for food.

It is clear that video games are here to stay. They are far too popular to eradicate completely, but since the video games being churned out by most companies these days tend to nullify our natural orientation towards compassion, lessen our sympathetic response to our fellow human beings, and reduce or ability to reduce conflict or respond positively to violence which already exists in the world, why don’t we harness the power of this medium and utilize it for good, instead of perpetuating vicious acts and cruel intentions?

We could teach a whole new generation how to do higher sciences and math, come up with alternative forms of sustainable energy, plan new societies that benefit everyone involved, much like Buckminster Fuller did, or even learn to speak a dying language that holds secrets to healing cancerdiabetes and heart disease. Most importantly, we could teach a generation to not see war, crime and violence as ‘normal.’ We know that our brains do respond to the networks we create with repeated use of a specific cognitive pathway, or as Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb put it, neurons that fire together wire together. It’s time to create some different neuronal pathways than those provided by modern violent video game entertainment.

About the Author

Christina Sarich is a musician, yogi, humanitarian and freelance writer who channels many hours of studying Lao TzuParamahansa YoganandaRob Brezny,  Miles Davis, and Tom Robbins into interesting tidbits to help you Wake up Your Sleepy Little Head, and See the Big Picture. Her blog is Yoga for the New World. Her latest book is Pharma Sutra: Healing the Body And Mind Through the Art of Yoga.

Sources:
– http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/07/us/07halo.html