Does consuming violent media inspire real-world aggression and violence? A new study hints that there probably isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. It depends on whether your brain is already wired for aggression.

Researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and the NIH Intramural Program set up an experiment to measure brain activity in response to violent media in two groups of men. One group had a history of violent tendencies including assault, the other did not.

The experiment took place over three days. One the first day they were shown violent movies including street fights and shootings. On the second they were shown non-violent movies. And on the third they were shown nothing. Their brain activity, feelings and blood pressure were monitored.

When watching violent videos the aggressive men showed less activity in their orbitofrontal cortex than the non-aggressive men. The orbitofrontal cortex is described by the study as a brain region “associated by past studies with emotion-related decision making and self-control.” Aggressive men also generally had lower blood pressure when watching the violence and felt less upset after watching it.

What did the aggressive men react to? To nothing. On the days when the participants were allowed to sit quietly, the aggressive men showed much more activity in parts of the brain that are associated with “doing nothing in particular,” the study showed, suggesting they have a different “brain function map” than non-aggressive people.

The researchers hope their findings can be used in programs to stop aggressive tendencies before they develop in childhood.

“How an individual responds to their environment depends on the brain of the beholder,” said lead investigator Nelly Alia-Klein, PhD, Associate Professor of Neuroscience and Psychiatry at the Friedman Brain Institute and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “Aggression is a trait that develops together with the nervous system over time starting from childhood; patterns of behavior become solidified and the nervous system prepares to continue the behavior patterns into adulthood when they become increasingly coached in personality. This could be at the root of the differences in people who are aggressive and not aggressive, and how media motivates them to do certain things. Hopefully these results will give educators an opportunity to identify children with aggressive traits and teach them to be more aware of how aggressive material activates them specifically.”

[Source: Mt. Sinai Medical Center]

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