Whenever we act against our own best interests and hear ourselves wondering, “Why did I do that?” we were likely feeling the dumbing-down effects of dopamine overload. In the heat of highly-charged moments, blood and oxygen are selectively diverted away from the thinking Human Brain and directed to the instinctive Animal Brain. In one-tenth of a second, anger, frustration, fear – or any strong emotion – can pump out enough dopamine to block the Human Brain’s capacity to intervene with rational thinking. We literally cannot think straight. According to UCLA neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman, it is like temporarily losing 10 to 15 IQ points!
When this neurochemical, made right between our ears, spikes in highly aggressive or violent moments, in a junior college shooting in Oregon, or in an ISIS raid in Syria, communications between the impulsive emotional Animal (mammalian) Brain and the intelligent, modern Human Brain (or prefrontal cortex) are blocked. Humans are left with little more than unstable, primitive, Animal Brain instincts, and raw emotion.
Rational, Human Brain thinking and problem solving are impossible. In a severe dopamine stupor, as in violent crimes or combat, any ability to analyze big-picture outcomes, manage behavior, or feel empathy for others, is lost. In worst case scenarios, awful things happen; like mass murders.
The real challenge is that dopamine, meant to keep us alert and alive, has an addictive effect, similar to amphetamines and cocaine. So, as with any highly addictive substance, progressively more violence is needed in order to avoid boredom, depression and physical discomfort.
I grew up is the Northwest where guns, used by so many for hunting and recreational purposes, blended into the woodwork. No one talked about guns. It was rare to see one. And, as in much of the rest of the U.S., no one worried for a moment about being gunned down by one.
What changed? In 1967 Bonnie and Clyde died slow-motion, bullet-riddled, body-jerking deaths in a film scene that shocked viewers. Today, Stephen Prince, Professor of Communication Studies at Virginia Tech, says when he shows the classic to his current film-studies classes, students laugh.
Creators of film and video games are continuously upping the graphic violence and glorious gore. When the protagonist is disrespected, disenfranchised, or just mad as hell, the solution is to come out with gigantic guns blazing, blasting anyone in their way. Violence is made attractive. In film, and especially in video gaming, blowing the enemy or offender away is the ultimate expression of dominance by the most powerful character or virtual combatant. It’s what winners do.
An 81 billion dollar video gaming industry, supported by millions of player-addicts, has little motivation to assume any culpability for the relationship between violent entertainment, the deaths of random students, movie goers, and shoppers, or even the spirit of meanness that appears to be expanding and growingly tolerated. Both producers and players will persist with the argument that of the billions of hours spend virtually shooting and killing, only a tiny percentage of gamers will ever act out the violence to which they dedicated so much time practicing.
Metal detectors at school, airports and offices, and the rising number of public massacres, are the unfortunate evidence that arbitrary violence, not previously a feature of life for the majority of Americans, has become the new “normal”. And, there’s no contesting that whatever we practice, will be integrated into our thinking and behavior to some extent; flagrantly as killers, or more subtly as desensitized by-standers.
It’s unimaginable that gaming, film and cable television interests who market to fear or violence-junkies, addicted to the dopamine rushes they guarantee, will hold themselves accountable. Constructive change in media creation will occur when parents says “no” to gratuitously violent entertainment at home. It will occur as voters support public officials who pass laws in the best interest of civil society. But ultimately, the direct leverage for change will be in the wisdom of those who turn off violent television programming, won’t pay for tickets to violent films, and refuse to buy violent video games for their children and themselves.