The moral majority have long proclaimed the ills of pornography and violent videogames. But the truth regarding digital stimuli is far more complex than the narrative provides. The brain creates reality for the individual via perception, and experience (digital or otherwise) has actual physical consequences for the body. Additionally, the consequences of prolonged exposure to extreme stimulation (whether positive or negative) are conclusively detrimental. However, very few people who utilize violent or erotic digital media do so at the magnitude required to cause harm. Although the brain is influenced by media in profound and measurable ways, responsible use of such materials does not raise concerns.
The Reality of Thought
The brain is a powerful computer system that not only manages our body, but also generates the mind! It is a remarkable organ responsible for receiving and organizing tons of information, and then influencing or controlling nearly every function of the human creature. The brain controls all our autonomic processes that occur outside our awareness (such as digestion and maintaining body temperature), and also acts as a platform for our consciousness (such as the memory of last night’s dinner).
The more we learn about the mind, the more we discover that perception creates reality. For example, the phrase “my dog barks!” results in you thinking of a dog. Your mind will generate a picture of a dog, and you may even approximate the sound of the dog barking. Although I have not described “my dog” in any meaningful way, your mind nonetheless creates a simulation of “my dog”—you may imagine Toto from the Wizard of Oz, or perhaps the heroic Lassie. The profound thing to remember is that although I have never shown you “my dog,” the mind nonetheless creates a simulation that is as real to your brain as any dog you can view in the material world. The same emotion and memory centers of the brain that respond to a puppy actually licking your face, will also get excited by the memory or thought of a puppy licking your face. This thought may cause you to smile or cringe depending on your personality— but either way, the thought is made real because imagining the puppy creates an actual physical response to the stimuli. Fantasy becomes reality because of the way thought manifests via cephalic simulation and approximation.
Every thought in our head occurs as a physical process within the brain. Take this blog for an example—as you read these words, thoughts are produced in your mind, and those thoughts, in turn, elicit a physiological response (i.e. you may find the article interesting, boring, infuriating, tragic, etc.). Eve Sedgwick, an influential social scientist, described the manner in which social abstractions are made real through the human experience via a process known as Affect Theory. Sedgwick explained how when a person experiences social influence (such as racial or gender bias), that experience will have an impact on their mental state, and in turn, the mental processes associated with that experience will manifest in the material realm as electrical impulses and chemical signals that in turn dramatically impact physical health and mental well-being of the individual. Sedgwick, therefore, helps us see how immaterial abstractions are made tangible and real through the human experience. No thought is lost to the void—every impulse that passes through the mind inevitably serves to influence the human creature on a physical level.
Because the mind makes perceptions reality, the media we consume has a measurable impact on both our physical health and mental well-being. Affect Theory explains how pornography and violent media are made real within the human mind. When the viewer witnesses sexually arousing or extremely violent acts, the body has a physical response. Think of an exciting moment of romance, or perhaps a time when you were hurt. Odds are, you will be able to conjure a sense of pleasure or pain in your mind—even though that memory may be years in the past. This can be a fun little function of our brain as we nostalgically reminisce about past conquests, but there is also the dark side to our brain’s capacity to create reality. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for example, occurs when the mind cannot escape a negatively excited state caused by trauma. The mind creates reality—and that knowledge should lead us to be more aware of what we allow to enter our minds.
Sex, Violence, and the Human Brain
There are benefits and dangers of stimulating the brain. Prolonged states of excitement can erode grey matter in the brain, and reduce the pleasure response associated with previously stimulating activities. Reports on pornography and videogame addiction have found a correlation between prolonged exposure to stimuli, and a subsequent thinning of the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex has been implicated in complex cognitive processes, personality expression, and moderating social behavior. Seemingly, subjecting the brain to repeated doses of extreme digital experience reduces a person’s capacity to be logical and social in the material world. Moreover, videogame and pornography addiction is associated with a reduction in dopamine output. The digital addict becomes dependent on the media source in order to trigger an adrenal response—in short, the addict cannot feel good unless they get their media fix. The combination of inhibiting the normal output of feel-good chemicals by the endocrine system, and reducing the capacity of the individuals to navigate complex social situations due to damage to the prefrontal cortex, causes a digital addict to become increasingly isolated from the real world, and increasingly dependent on their addiction.
On the other hand, limited exposure to extreme digital stimuli has not been shown to have any negative effect on brain function. In fact, limited exposure to violent videogames and pornography have actually been shown to have a positive effect on cognition and well-being. The occasional use of internet pornography enhances libido and boosts the adrenal system. Additionally, videogame violence in small doses has been shown to be both cathartic and beneficial to fine motor function.
Although it seems that extreme digital stimuli must be regarded with caution, that is no reason to condemn pornography or violence in videogames wholesale. All pleasurable experiences have the potential to bind the human mind in the manacles of addiction. The onus is on the consumer to responsibly utilize the media at their disposal.
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