Born to Copy? Media Violence and Mirror Neurons

Dear Dr. Dave, 

There was recently a bomb threat at my son's high school. It seemed like the plot was right out of a video game. I can't help but think that there is a relationship - are kids just copying what they see in their entertainment?

Thanks, Ilana, Maine

Ilana, This reminds me of a conversation I had years ago, in the wake of the infamous Columbine High School shooting. A reporter asked me if the video game Doom was to blame.  Investigators had just learned that the teenage killers had been fans of the game, in which a player engages in a graphic killing rampage. So, the reporter wondered, didn’t I think that the massacre was simply a matter of monkey see monkey do

A complex relationship
My answer: “Of course not.”  Just think of all the people who have played a violent video game or watched a violent movie. If media violence caused people to imitate what they have seen, the entire human race would have wiped itself out years ago. Media images affect our values and our norms, which can, in turn, shape our behavior. But, I told the reporter, the impact of the media is much more complex than simple cause and effect.

Mirror Neurons 
That said, new discoveries in neuroscience show monkey see monkey do is still an important part of the conversation. It all began over a decade ago with the discovery of mirror neurons.  One day, an Italian neuroscience graduate student returned to his team’s lab eating an ice cream cone.  A monkey that was hooked up to machines measuring his brain activity noticed the ice cream.  The scientists, led by a man named by Giacomo Rizzolatti, noticed that every time the student licked the cone the monkey’s brain signaled activity even though he was motionless.  The monkey wasn’t physically doing anything, but his mirror cells were practicing the action he saw.  He was learning how to lick an ice cream cone.

It turns out humans have mirror neurons too, more than any other species, in fact.  The latest research shows that mirror cells are more than just the basis for imitation – they are the foundation for social interaction and moral awareness.   Here’s how Dr. Rizzolatti explained the phenomenon in the New York Times: “Mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation. By feeling not by thinking.”

Born to copy and empathize
When we observe other people, mirror cells fire in response to the actions we observe.   And it’s not just a matter of recording an observation; mirror cells simulate these actions in our brain.   The brain’s capacity for empathy is based in mirror cells as well. When we observe another person experiencing an emotion, the mirror cells in the same emotional circuits light up in our own brains. That’s why we get sad when something awful happens to a friend, scared at movies or angry when playing a violent video game.  As far as mirror cells are concerned, it’s as if these things are happening to us. 

Choose media carefully for kids
In terms of media violence, we are lucky that our brains our made from more than mirror cells.  Most of us can tell the difference between the people on the screen and the person watching them.  But even if we’re not imitating exactly what we see, we’re always learning how to do what we see.  All the more reason to choose games and movies carefully. Be sure to watch the ratings and talk to our kids about what they are playing and watching. If you don’t, the media could make a monkey out of them.

Thanks,

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Dr. Dave

P.S. If you are interested in mirror neurons, check out this amazing talk by Vilayanur Ramachadran on "The Neurons That Shaped Civilization:"