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Our understanding of the function of mirror neurons and their influence on human behavior is quite rudimentary, but the implications of this recent discovery are far-reaching. There is still much to understand about how external stimuli affects the developing brain, and without a wealth of research, the true significance of mirror neurons remains controversial. Interestingly, there are studies suggesting that young people who play violent video games, may be mimicking the behaviors that they observe.
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There are conflicting perspectives about whether video games such as ‘Grand Theft Auto’, ‘Resident Evil’ or the phenomenally popular ‘Fortnite’, increase violent or aggressive behavior in adolescents. Parents and educators are understandably concerned about the correlation, and in 2015, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) felt that there was sufficient research to support this concern. The APA published a policy statement concluding that playing violent video games leads to more aggressive moods and behaviors and reduces players’ empathy and sensitivity (Resolution on Violent Video Games).
Mirror neurons are a class of neuron that are active when an individual executes a specific motor action and when they observe the same or a similar action performed by another individual (Kilner & Lemon, 2013). These neurons fire in the premotor cortex, the area of the brain responsible for planning and executing actions and learning through imitation, including violent behaviors (Swanson, 2015). If these cells’ main job is to imitate and adolescents are neurologically mirroring the behavior that they observe when playing violent video games, could this exposure predispose young people to commit violent acts themselves?
In psychological research, aggression is usually defined as behavior that is intended to harm others (VandenBos, 2007). Violence can be defined as an extreme form of aggression or the intentional use of physical force, resulting in or having a high likelihood of resulting in harm (Krug, Dahlberg, Mercy, Zwi, & Lozano, 2002). Aggressive behaviors involve the violation of others, and the inability to empathize and be insightful of others’ emotions. Mirror neurons are for the most part positively attributed to imitation and empathy, allowing us to be able to feel what others are experiencing. Does it follow logically that mirror neurons could be a negative conditioning factor violence in young people playing overtly violent games?
In 1961, Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura demonstrated the way children adopt violent behavior in an automatic way. Two groups of children participated in an experiment that involved watching adults play with a ‘Bobo Doll’ that looked like a clown, before being allowed to play with it themselves. One group observed adults playing violently with the doll, and the second group observed adults playing peacefully with the doll. Bandura found that the group that watched the adult behaving aggressively were most likely to behave that way also. If the adult was the same sex as the child, the effect was even stronger, suggesting that children will imitate behaviors more from those who they identify with (Bandura, Ross & Ross, 1961). Many years later, after the discovery of mirror neurons, it has become much clearer just how hard-wired our brains are to imitate the actions we see around us.
In the mid-1990’s, neuroscientist Giancomo Rizzolatti, MD, and a team of Italian researchers were the first to discover mirror neurons in the premotor cortex of macaque monkeys at the University of Parma. They measured the monkey’s brain activity, noting that pleasure centers lit up when the monkey received a peanut as a reward. One of the researchers noticed that when he ate a peanut (other reports say it was an ice-cream cone) in front of a monkey, its pleasure centers activated as if the monkey had eaten the peanut himself (Morgan, 2014). Rizolatti applied his research to humans and found that unlike other motor neurons, mirror neurons not only fired when involved in planning a motor movement but also when observing movement in another person (Mirror Neurons: From Monkeys to Humans).
Humans are an empathetic species. When we see someone else experience pain or sadness, we feel it too. This explains why viewers connect strongly with onscreen emotions or why spectators at a boxing match might recoil while watching a boxer take a violent blow to the head. As far as mirror neurons are concerned, it’s as if these things are happening to us. Can ‘monkey see, monkey do’ cause video gamers to feel less empathy or react aggressively in real life after being desensitized to blood and gore? Interestingly, the United States Army released first-person shooter video games, ‘America’s Army’ in 2002, developed to be used as a recruitment tool and virtual reality-based training (Shaban, 2013). Perhaps the army felt that exposing recruits to virtual violence would prepare them to more readily commit violent acts in reality.
Advances in graphics mean that games are more immersive, bringing the player closer to the action, and digitally enhanced animation means that the video games of today are very effective at eliciting emotion. A lot of time and resources have been spent perfecting animated character facial expressions so that they are easily recognized and effectively convey emotion (The Walking Dead, Mirror Neurons and Empathy, 2012). According to Dr. Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at UCLA and a leader in the field of mirror neuron research, empathic individuals exhibit nonconscious mimicry of the postures, mannerisms, and facial expressions of others (Carr, Iacoboni, Dubeau, Mazziotta, & Lenzi, 2003). When players recognize aggression in animated video game character’s faces, mirror neurons activate as if the player was making the expression. Because of this inner imitation, players do in fact feel the same emotion to some extent (Madigan, 2006).
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We understand that there is inner imitation taking place, but are mirror neurons causing gamers to not only empathize but to share emotions with game characters? Most adolescents would say that they know the difference between a video game and reality, but children learn by observing, mimicking and then adopting behavior. Several short-term studies have shown that a unique relationship exists between violent gaming and aggression, and it is clear that there is a long-term association. A longitudinal study of this association was done at Brock University in Ontario, Canada in 2012, and found that adolescents who played violent video games across many years reported an increase in aggression over time compared to participants who reported less sustained play (Willoughby, Adachi & Good, 2012).
In the United States, 97% of adolescents aged 12-17 years old play video games, with 31% playing daily and another 21% playing 3-5 days per week. Data from this same study indicates that over half of the sample surveyed reported playing violent video games, and five of the ten most frequently played games were assessed as violent (Lenhart et al., 2008). Other research shows that more than half of all games rated by The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) contained violence, and more than 90% of these were rated as appropriate for children 10 years or older (McCarthy, 2016). Considering the sheer number of adolescents playing violent video games on a regular basis, the resulting violence and aggressive could become a significant public health threat.
According to Rowell Huesmann, a psychologist at the University of Michigan who has studied aggression extensively, the correlation between media violence and aggressive behavior is almost as strong as the correlation between smoking and lung cancer (Huesmann & Taylor, 2006). Hostile attribution bias, in which someone could infer hostile intent from a situation that is not obviously hostile can arise from media violence. After being repeatedly exposed to violent media, events can be perceived as more hostile (Gentile & Bushman, 2012). An adolescent who has been exposed to violent video games over time is more likely to react violently to something they perceive as hostile, when in fact it is ambiguous.
As adolescents are exposed to entertainment and advertising more and more each day, it is becoming increasingly more important to understand how it affects them. The link between violent video games and aggressive behavior is well studied and well established. However, there is still much to understand about mirror neurons and the effect that they have on aggressive tendencies in adolescents. It seems highly likely that over-exposure to violent and aggressive digital input, particularly to young brains over long periods of time, could result in violent behaviors being mirrored. Violence is similar to a contagion in the way that it spreads. In the case of youth exposed to violent behavior on a daily basis, it would be beneficial to our society to understand, and reduce imitative violence.
Society must pay close attention to this issue and promote legislation that would make it difficult for young people to access overtly violent games. Adult video games should not be inappropriately marketed towards adolescents and sales to children should be regulated. We should not be distracted by lawmakers who try to shift the focus away from gun violence in any way, but we do need to accept that a combination of aggression and gun violence can be lethal.
It would be my recommendation that parents should be involved with their children’s online and digital activities and limit the amount of time that they are playing. As with any other media, it is a parent’s responsibility to ensure that their young children are not exposed to and desensitized by violence. Considering the number of young people who are playing violent video games daily, more research needs to be conducted into the possible effect that mirror neurons have on developmental aspects of the adolescent brain and negative behaviors. This could provide empirical evidence and a neurological connection to a significant societal concern that has been viewed in the past as purely a behavioral issue and may provide valuable insights into effective strategies for intervention.
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