More on torture, sympathy, novels, and streaming media

My post earlier this month, on torture, novels, and human rights, has met with more response than my meanderings usually do: a response at Hermits Rock, and a post and a comments thread at the Valve. I’m also told that a recent book by David Griffith, A Good War Is Hard to Find, makes an argument similar to mine, and even starts by comparing the novel and movie versions of the torture scenes in Deliverance.

A few commenters at the Valve somehow figured out that I’m not a cognitive psychologist, alas. Fortunately, this morning I happened to stumble across some confirmation of my irresponsible hunches. Even though I didn’t know about it when I wrote my original post, it turns out that there is evidence that watching violence on screen changes the brain, according to "Mind-altering media," an article by Helen Philips in the 19 April 2007 issue of New Scientist:

Brain imaging and other physiological measures also reveal changes in emotional responses to violent images as a result of viewing violence or playing violent games. Bruce Bartholow of the University of Missouri, Columbia, has found that people with a history of game playing have a reduced brain response to shocking pictures, suggesting that people begin to see such imagery as more normal. Another study found that frontal lobe activity was reduced in youngsters who played a violent video game for 30 minutes, compared with those playing an equally exciting but non-violent game. This brain region is important for concentration and impulse control, among other things. A region called the amygdala, important for emotional control, was more aroused in those who experienced the violent game.

The article also references what is apparently overwhelming scientific documentation of a link between television viewing and increased aggressive behavior in children, so overwhelming that one developmental psychologist calls the ambivalence about the link in the mainstream press exasperating. The implication is that reporting on the research has been befuddled in much the way that reporting on smoking and global warming once were.

Of course this doesn’t necessarily prove the other lemma in my hypothesis, that reading novels is good for you.

3 thoughts on “More on torture, sympathy, novels, and streaming media”

  1. I just responded to your earlier post, when I noticed that it is not your most current post. I wanted to add one thing to my earlier response, though. It is another 'hunch' – and that is that novels emerge in the course of the making of civil society and seem to function best, or, rather, seem to function as the most critically valuable verbal artifact in those kinds of societies – in democratic culture – and in doing so they elbow aside poetry. Poetry, on the other hand, seems much more cherished in cultures that do not put that much emphasis on the novel. There are societies in transition, like Russia (which has been in transition forever) where both forms have equal prestige – but I would bet that if Russia ever really democratized, the poem would lose its popular aura.

  2. Thanks, Roger. That's a very Tocquevillean thought, in spirit (though now that I check, I see that Tocqueville wrote that democrats would eventually figure out to write poems about their favorite topic, their ideal conception of themselves). I always thought that the poem in the West lost its popularity to the pop song — that after 1954 or so, if you were a young person who felt within him- or herself a lyric inclination, you'd learn to play the guitar — writing thus giving way to a superior recording technology, and attention to the merely verbal part of the song becoming to some extent sacrificed in the process. In the form of the pop song, after all, the poem is alive and well.

    As for your comment to the other post: That's intriguing, though I'm afraid I don't know enough about English penal history to respond. Prison boats don't sound terribly pleasant.

  3. Caleb, I wasn't very clear about poetry – it isn't that I mean that "nobody" does poetry, but that poetry as the sort of center of the literary universe – which was true even up to the time Lord Byron wrote Child Harold – was displaced by the novel in England and France, and in Germany in the 1920s. Or at least I could make a good argument for that, I think. But in, say, Bulgaria, or Turkey, or Egypt, or Iran, I don't think the novel has that same centrality. I think that is what novelists and critics are always lamenting about, nowadays – the symbolic pre-eminence once given the novel no longer exists, or at least is in eclipse.
    Since I am a reader of novels and a writer of fiction, that doesn't make me happy. I want to opt for the eclipse rather than some permanent shift. On the other hand, the novel can get along fine without being symbolically central. I think you are right that the damage is really to the culture at large, or at least a culture that is premised on balancing the greed of the marketplace, the absorbing slavery of the money nexus, with freedom, dignity and justice. I think the real symptom of a sort of narrative breakdown in the U.S. culture has been the odd way in which the Iraq war is discussed. I noticed early on that there seemed to be a lack of understanding of the narrative "then" – that is, the rule in storymaking and real life that one thing happens, and "then" another thing happens. The amount of wishful thinking, of willful blindness to the 'then' side of things amazed me. I think the interrupted 'then' might stem from, well, I'm not sure – F/X and slow motion in movies? Computer games?
    It is a puzzle.

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