When I was 20 I went to Amsterdam. They had an exhibit in the Science Center Nemo where there was a machine that flashed images on a screen. There were calm images (a beautiful flower, a still lake, a pair of bunnies) and mixed in amongst them were disturbing images – a decapitated chicken, a pair of naked men, a hunter pointing his rifle at you. You’d put your fingers into a pair of electrosensitive cups and the machine told you how disturbed you were by the various images. My reactions were right on track for all images. All images except one.
I didn’t show any reaction to the man pointing a rifle at my head. No reaction at all.
I played a lot of video games at the time. My favorite was Delta Force (the Novalogic one), a military first person shooter with team death match mode. This was in the days before Counter Strike, even before Half Life, and Delta Force was the most realistic 3D shooter out there. Having someone pointing a gun at me wasn’t disturbing. I was used to it.
I no longer play video games but for a long time I kept being undisturbed by violence. I kept getting my daily dose through TV, and not movies or series either, but common, everyday news. Then, about six month ago, I decided that the news were nothing but a different form of TV series, with its own dramaturgy and villains, but ultimately pointless. If there was something important enough to warrant attention I’d hear about it over fika*.
* Fika is a archetypal Swedish tradition where you, twice a day, sit down to a hot drink and a sweet snack. Strangely there are very few obese people in Sweden.
I started crying.
I’ve always been sensitive to melodrama. Bring on the violin music and I’d cry like a baby. But now it became extreme, I’d cry at the slightest provocation. When my kids gave me a drawing I was touched. If my wife told me she loved me I’d feel the tears hovering at the corners of my eyes. I watched Disney’s Frozen and I cried so much my wife started laughing (in her defense it really was comic, even I found it absurd and laughed through my tears – but I couldn’t stop crying).
And somewhere amongst those tears I found something. I found my ability to be disturbed.
Yesterday I saw the movie Snowpiercer, an absurdly over the top violent revolutionary tale set on a train. It gave me nightmares. It also started me thinking.
Since I stopped watching the news and started crying I’ve a lot of things have happened that are hard to notice but have had a large impact on my life.
I’m much more present in the moment. I’m much more aware of the things happening around me. When I’m out walking get I sometimes get that strange feeling that I used to get after meditating, the one that the world is so big, that the leaves are so green, that I’m part of everything around me. It’s like my meditations acted to counteract something that my news and media consumption stifled in me.
I am much more attentive to the needs of my family. I don’t get annoyed as easily even when I’m tired. I find that I can see the emotions of the people around me a lot easier even when they’re distant acquainteces or even strangers.
Perhaps I’m reading too much into this. There is such a thing as the placebo effect after all. But even if it is placebo it still works. I’m a lot happier, over all, from having cut out all the bad news from my life.
Personally I think that this is Daniel Khaneman’s framing effect. Without a constant reinforcement of how dangerous the world is, how many people are dying in freak accidents, how close we are to war, economic meltdown, environmental catastrophe and all those other things that keep watchers glued to their screens and sell advertising time on the news, it seems that I’m reverting to a childish belief in the general goodness of being.
It is a wonderful thing.