The contemporary world is one absolutely saturated with media. If you are reading this article then you are in fact currently consuming public media. It seems that in almost every pocket, living room, bedroom, bar, and classroom in the modern world there is a piece of technology that connects us to the media. By “the media” I mean simply the public broadcast of rhetorical or entertaining material.
There is really no historical precedent for this level of media saturation. Historical peoples have had circuses, gladiators, theater, the opera. But these pastimes were not available 24/7, on demand, on private devices. More recent generations had the newspaper, then then the awe-inspiring radio. But even these were not attended to for hours each day, in living color, or produced as part of an enormous, multi-billion dollar industry.
I’d like to give a scientific, a philosophical, and a Biblical principle to help us understand how to feel about these strange times.
Science: Mirror Neurons
Mirror neurons were not discovered until the early 1990’s, but they have incredible implications concerning our social behavior. Scientists have discovered that when we observe behavior performed by someone else, our own brain activity mirrors that of the actual participant.
This is what can make video-based media so engrossing. When we see someone smile, our own brains behave as though we were smiling. When we see someone using a hammer, our own brains behave as though we were using a hammer.
When we see television or movie characters performing sexual acts… You guessed it, our brains behave as though we were having sex. When we see acts of graphic violence and revenge, the same principle applies.
Now couple this principle with the fact that our brains go into a low alpha brain wave state when we stare at a screen. This means that we become considerably more suggestible because the parts of our brains that evaluate and criticize are being turned off.
What you get is a superhighway of ideas that pour into your brain and effect it as though it were having real experiences of… whatever you choose to watch, be it pornography, graphic violence, etc.
In light of these principles, recent mass-murder sprees and their correlation with the technology saturated world, are not surprising.
If you wouldn’t do it, think twice before you watch it.
Philosophy: Distortion of Perspective
Søren Kierkegaard lived in a time before television, but his analysis of the media was very telling:
“On the whole the evil in the daily press consists in its being calculated to make, if possible, the passing moment a thousand or ten thousand times more inflated and important than it really is. But all moral elevation consists first and foremost in being weaned from the momentary.”
Malcom Muggeridge put it this way:
“Now can this really be, as the media continually insists, what life is about–this worldwide soap opera going on from century to century, from era to era, whose old discarded sets litter the world?”
Both men are pointing out a basic principle. The media tells us what to view as important. It tells us that everyone else, “the public,” is very concerned or interested or entertained by exhibit A, and that we should be, too.
In this way, it inflates the importance of subjects that only distract us from our own personal talents, responsibilities, and the great themes of human existence that aren’t directly involved with the violent shooting last night, the latest celebrity gossip, etc.
Bible: Intentions of the Heart
In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”
Jesus is pointing out for us that something as simple as visual stimuli is capable of opening the door to very damaging mental processes.
He goes on to tell us later in the sermon that “the eye is the lamp of the body.” Jesus knew what contemporary psychology and neuroscience is telling us, that what we see has a profound impact on us.
I urge Christian readers, consider the motives behind your consumption of media. Consider the effects that television and movies may be having on your values. And I urge us all to meditate on great themes and do great things in this world. Do not sacrifice your mind to the media.