Neuroscientists at the Columbia University Medical College Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) Research Center recently reported that individuals exposed to violent visual media programming show decreased activity in their right-lateral orbitofrontal cortex (ltOFC) as well as a decrease in its communication with the amygdala (Kelly, et al.). This brain region, the ltOFC, is involved in suppressing aggressive reactions to situations, among other behaviors. The amygdala is critical in fear-sensing circuitry and its central nucleus is responsible for directing physiological changes that lead to behavioral output within a given context. By acting as a negative regulator of amygdala output, the ltOFC normally functions to decrease levels of violent aggression in inappropriate situations. Therefore, the diminished response of the inhibitory frontolimbic network results is an example of a concrete cortical change upon repeated exposure to media violence.
Previously, neuroscience had not been able to explain the claim that violent video games, movies, and TV programming significantly contributed to increased social violence among viewers. Kelly et al.’s finding, however, shows that exposure to such media induces changes in the cortical networks associated with controlling behavior. In my opinion, these results need to be highly publicized so that people, especially parents, are forewarned of such ill-effects. Knowledge of potential brain-changing activity should prevent a fully culpable individual from passing the blame onto video-game/violent-media producers in a criminal case.
Further, although peering inside the brain of a criminal suspect or during a proposed elementary school screening (likened to those for scoliosis or hearing) using fMRI may infringe on an individual’s 5th amendment rights, functional imaging results can help enforce pro-cultural laws regulating what film-artists and video-game producers can actually market to the public. If a new case was brought against the media concerning the display of violent, the prosecution could find fMRI analysis as a new tool in their belt. The scientific evidence of cortical network changes could set a strong precedent for future media content and represent an initial step toward preventative measures.