Violent Video Games, Horror Movies, Distressing Literature, Scary Rides at Amusement Parks

January 14, 2015 at 8:09 pm | Posted in Brain and mind, Practical tips | 2 Comments
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Female disguised as a Vampire, taken at E3 Trade show, 12 May 2000, by Carniphage.

Female disguised as a Vampire, taken at E3 Trade show, 12 May 2000, by Carniphage.

The previous post showed why performing gangsta rap, or listening to it, might raise blood pressure, and might boost the amount of stress hormones circulating in the blood. It also pointed out that we could and should test whether those damaging effects actually occur.

This post points out that the same damaging effects could result from playing violent video games, or from watching horror movies, or from reading distressing literature, or from taking scary rides at amusement parks.

Agrianian peltast. He holds three javelins, one in his throwing hand and two in his pelte hand as additional ammunition. Agrianian Peltast by Johnny Shumate For more information about illustrations, email shumate_j@bellsouth.net

Agrianian peltast. He holds three javelins, one in his throwing hand and two in his pelte hand as additional ammunition.
Agrianian Peltast by Johnny Shumate For more information about illustrations, email shumate_j@bellsouth.net

Battle for Sarajevo in 1878, as depicted by G. Durand (1800-1899) in The Graphic (a London newspaper).

Battle for Sarajevo in 1878, as depicted by G. Durand (1800-1899) in The Graphic (a London newspaper).

In a violent video game, you stalk, and are stalked, all the time. Extreme alertness is demanded. Paranoia is essential. Paradoxically, your intense focus produces a state whose single mindedness is akin to that in meditation. But every change is sudden, and threatening, which block the usual beneficial effects of meditation. Instead, your pulse races, you have an adrenalin high, you itch to use your weapon.

What is your blood pressure all the while? Which stress hormones are boosted, by how much, and for how long?

Studio publicity still of Alfred Hitchcock.

Studio publicity still of Alfred Hitchcock.

A movie by Alfred Hitchcock, or any other horror movie, also produces a sense of being stalked, except that here you are being stalked vicariously, through your temporary avatar, who is first one, and later another, of the victims in the movie.

Jean Valjean, drawn by Gustave Brion (1824-1877) to illustrate Victor Hugo's novel Les Miserables.

Jean Valjean, drawn by Gustave Brion (1824-1877) to illustrate Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables.

The same is true in distressing literature, low or high, and in tragic opera. While you are reading or viewing Les Miserables, one of your avatars is Jean Valjean, except when it temporarily becomes Fantine, and then a person fighting at the barricades. Each temporarily becomes your avatar, regardless of whether their sex coincides with yours or not.

To your mind, it feels as if you are actually experiencing the fictional events that befall each of those avatars. It feels like an experience, because you are mentally mirroring first one temporary avatar, and then another. As described in previous posts, mental mirroring evolved early, because it is so useful for telling an animal what to do next. Birds do it. Possibly fish do it. Mental mirroring is easily mistaken for a reflexive response, but is based instead on an animal’s real-time attempted simulation of the mental world of another individual, who may be real (another animal) or imagined (a storm, something that tripped you, a god). Mammals do it well, to the point where some can feel empathy for other individuals of their own or different species. Humans have developed mental mirroring so highly that mental mirroring has led to science, art, philosophy, and religion, as described in those previous posts. We will inevitably eventually build mental mirroring into future robots that are designed to function autonomously.

Because of mental mirroring, the harrowing experiences of each of your temporary avatars become your own, and can raise your blood pressure, and can saturate you with stress hormones.

Steel Force and Thunderhawk at Dorney Park in Allentown, PA. Photo by Ryan Painter.

Steel Force and Thunderhawk at Dorney Park in Allentown, PA. Photo by Ryan Painter.

Roller coasters and boats on rivers through haunted caves act in different ways. On a roller coaster you are awash in adrenalin. The outside world becomes a confusing blur, so there is no heightened alertness to the external world, as would occur in a violent video game. But you do become intently focused on your internal state, alert to every uneasiness in the pit of your stomach, and to every hint of dizziness. But blood pressure and stress hormones both increase. On a boat inside a haunted cave the effects are much like those in a scary movie. So both blood pressure and stress hormones increase here, too.

So all of the activities discussed in this post could increase blood pressure and stress hormones, just as gangsta rap probably does.

If so, there would still be substantial eventual damage. The damage would first become manifest years from now.

The activities discussed in this post are much less frequent than is listening to gangsta rap, or to performing it. But since the potential cumulative damage is still severe, it would still be important to test by measurement, for each of the activities discussed in this and the previous post, whether blood pressure and stress hormones increase during that activity. The expectation that they increase might turn out to be incorrect. If increases do occur, they might turn out to be much smaller than expected, because each of these activities is voluntary rather than imposed. But we need to find out, as individuals and as a society.

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2 Comments »

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  1. Brilliant. Why don’t we talk about this more?

  2. Previous discussions considered only what video gamers might do to others. But the gamers and listeners might turn out to be doing something to themselves, too. They might unknowingly be hurting themselves. (In the post before this one, the same issue was raised for listeners to rap.) We really need good measurements of the strength and duration of the physiological changes, to take the discussion beyond plausible speculation. Science Fair projects on this could really contribute, supplementing what the professionals might do. Science Fair projects on this would be fun to do, and would also bring the results to the attention of the most affected part of the public.


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