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Digital media may under-stimulate moral senses

April 13, 2009
Courtesy University of Southern California
and World Science staff

It’s snappy, trendy and convenient—but the new dig­it­al me­dia pre­va­l­ent in our time may move too fast to de­vel­op our mor­al feel­ings, which awak­en slow­ly, ac­cord­ing to a new stu­dy.

“For some kinds of thought, es­pe­cially mor­al decision-making about oth­er peo­ple’s so­cial and psy­cho­log­i­cal situa­t­ions, we need to al­low for ad­e­quate time and re­flec­tion,” said Mary Hel­en Im­mor­dino-Yang of the Uni­vers­ity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, one of the re­search­ers.

Led by An­to­nio Dama­sio, di­rec­tor of the un­ivers­ity’s Brain and Cre­ativ­ity In­sti­tute, the study is to ap­pear, per­haps apt­ly, in this week’s ear­ly on­line edi­tion of the re­search jour­nal Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tional Acad­e­my of Sci­ences.

The au­thors used real-life sto­ries to in­duce ad­mira­t­ion for vir­tue or skill, or com­pas­sion for phys­i­cal or so­cial pain, in 13 vol­un­teers. The emo­tion felt was ver­i­fied through in­ter­views. Some peo­ple found the ta­les so mov­ing that they re­fused the cus­tom­ary pay­ment for study par­ticipa­t­ion, the re­search­ers said.

But brain im­ag­ing showed that the vol­un­teers needed six to eight sec­onds to fully re­spond to sto­ries of vir­tue or so­cial pain, ac­cord­ing to the in­ves­ti­ga­tors. In con­trast, they not­ed, peo­ple can re­spond in frac­tions of sec­onds to signs of phys­i­cal pain in oth­ers. Once awak­ened, how­ev­er, the re­sponses to the sto­ries were found to last far long­er than the vol­un­teers’ re­ac­tions to sto­ries fo­cused on phys­i­cal pain.

The study raises ques­tions about the emo­tional cost—par­tic­ularly for the de­vel­oping brain—of heavy re­li­ance on a rap­id stream of news snip­pets ob­tained through tel­e­vi­sion, on­line feeds or so­cial net­works such as Twit­ter, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors said. “If things are hap­pen­ing too fast, you may not ev­er fully ex­pe­ri­ence emo­tions about oth­er peo­ple’s psy­cho­log­i­cal states and that would have im­plica­t­ions for your mor­al­ity,” Im­mor­dino- Yang said.

Nor­mal life events will al­ways pro­vide op­por­tun­i­ties for hu­mans to feel and learn ad­mira­t­ion and com­pas­sion, she added. But fast-paced dig­it­al me­dia tools may di­rect some heavy users away from tra­di­tion­al av­enues for learn­ing about hu­man­ity, such as lit­er­a­ture or face-to-face so­cial in­ter­ac­tions.

Immordino-Yang did­n’t blame dig­it­al me­dia. “It’s not about what tools you have, it’s about how you use those tools,” she said.

Man­u­el Castells, a me­dia schol­ar at the un­ivers­ity, said he was less con­cerned about on­line so­cial spaces, some of which can pro­vide op­por­tun­i­ties for re­flec­tion, than about “fast-mov­ing tel­e­vi­sion or vir­tu­al games.”

“In a me­dia cul­ture in which vi­o­lence and suf­fer­ing be­co­mes an end­less show, be it in fic­tion or in in­fo­tain­ment, in­dif­fer­ence to the vi­sion of hu­man suf­fer­ing grad­u­ally sets in,” he said. Dama­sio agreed: “What I’m more wor­ried about is what is hap­pen­ing in the (ab­rupt) jux­ta­po­si­tions that you find, for ex­am­ple, in the news. … When it comes to emo­tion, be­cause these sys­tems are in­her­ently slow, per­haps all we can say is, not so fast.”


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Today’s snappy-paced digital media may move too fast to develop our moral feelings, which awaken slowly, according to a new study. “For some kinds of thought, especial ly moral decision-making about other people’s social and psychological situations, we need to allow for adequate time and reflection,” said Mary Helen Immordino-Yang of the Un ivers ity of Southern California, one of the researchers. Led by Antonio Damasio, director of the un ivers ity’s Brain and Creativ ity Institute, the study is to appear, perhaps aptly, in this week’s ear ly online edition of the research journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The authors used real-life stories to induce admiration for virtue or skill, or compassion for physical or social pain, in 13 volunteers. The emotion felt was verified through interviews. Some people found the tales so moving that they refused the customary payment for study participation, the researchers said. But brain imaging showed that the volunteers needed six to eight seconds to ful ly respond to stories of virtue or social pain, according to the investigators. In contrast, they noted, people can respond in fractions of seconds to signs of physical pain in others. Once awakened, however, the responses to the stories were found to last far longer than the volunteers’ reactions to stories focused on physical pain. The study raises questions about the emotional cost—particular ly for the developing brain—of heavy reliance on a rapid stream of news snippets obtained through television, online feeds or social networks such as Twitter, the investigators said. “If things are happening too fast, you may not ever ful ly experience emotions about other people’s psychological states and that would have implications for your moral ity,” Immordino- Yang said. Normal life events will always provide opportun ities for humans to feel and learn admiration and compassion, she added. But fast-paced digital media tools may direct some heavy users away from traditional avenues for learning about human ity, such as literature or face-to-face social interactions. Immordino-Yang didn’t blame digital media. “It’s not about what tools you have, it’s about how you use those tools,” she said. Manuel Castells, a media scholar at the un ivers ity, said he was less concerned about online social spaces, some of which can provide opportun ities for reflection, than about “fast-moving television or virtual games.” “In a media culture in which violence and suffering becomes an endless show, be it in fiction or in infotainment, indifference to the vision of human suffering gradual ly sets in,” he said. Damasio agreed: “What I’m more worried about is what is happening in the (abrupt) juxtapositions that you find, for example, in the news. … When it comes to emotion, because these systems are inherent ly slow, perhaps all we can say is, not so fast.”