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TV violence may impair brain functioning

Love watching violent action on TV? Well, go ahead and gorge on them, but not before understanding the risk: latest research shows that young adults hooked to violence on TV have less mature brains and poorer executive functioning.

Published online in the journal Brain and Cognition by the Indiana University School of Medicine, the authors of this study used psychological tests and MRI scans to determine mental abilities and the volume of specific regions of the brain among 65 men. All these men were 18 to 29 years old and were chosen because they were infrequent video game players.

According to lead author Tom A. Hummer, Ph.D., assistant research professor in the IU Department of Psychiatry, the study considered the TV-viewing habits of these men over the last one year. Ahead of the study, they were also asked to maintain a detailed diary of the shows watched by them for a week. Then the researchers conducted a series of psychological tests to measure their inhibitory control, attention and memory. At the end, MRI scans were used to measure brain structure.

“We found that participants who had watched the most violent shows performed the worst on tasks involving attention and cognitive control,” Dr. Hummer said. “The quantum of time spent watching TV, in general, however, had no bearing on performance.” In other words, it does not matter to the brain how many hours you spend glued to the TV—it is what you watch that counts.

Since executive functions may be important to control impulsive behaviour, including aggression, the results of this study are worrying. However, working memory appeared to remain unaffected by violence on TV.

“The MRI scans revealed that the volume of white matter connecting the frontal and parietal lobes of the brain too was less among men who had binged on violent programmes.” This can be a sign of less maturity in brain development.

White matter is a tissue which aids the functioning of the brain by insulating nerve fibres connecting its different regions. Until the age of 30 the volume of white matter increases even as the brain makes more connections. This improves the communication between regions of the brain.

Dr Hummel, however, cautions that the study could not conclusively show whether people with less white matter are more drawn to violent programmes or it is the other way around. That is, watching more violent programmes leads to reduced white matter content.

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