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The Power of The Media

We’re often asked, "Why does it matter that entertainment is slipping morally?" Well, consider this: Have you ever gotten a tune stuck in your head? All you need to hear are a few bars and it starts involuntarily buzzing around in there. For hours. It could be a commercial jingle or a Top-40 hit. Maybe you heard it in a shopping mall or a restaurant. We wander through a supermarket and find ourselves humming the last song we heard on the radio before getting out of the car. We carry a hymn from the morning worship service with us long into Sunday afternoon. We toss and turn in bed trying to expunge an uninvited television theme song.

Then there’s the visual media. Most of us can recall disturbing images we wish we could erase from our minds. Things we’ve seen in movies, in magazines, on TV. The point is that music and images tend to travel with us. Good or bad, they rarely go in one ear and out the other. And the downward trend of entertainment morality means that we’re carrying around images and lyrics that are increasingly destructive.

So it’s hard to deny that music and visual images have tremendous sticking power. But do those lingering sensations really make a difference? The advertising industry believes they do. Why else would intelligent people who run large corporations plunk down millions of dollars for a mere 30-second commercial during the Super Bowl? They bank their business on your likeliness to recall and respond to their jingle, skit or montage.

Of course, the cause and effect process is not as simple as monkey see, monkey do. Rather, the media first affects our moods, attitudes and emotions, which then influence our actions. Plugged In spoke with Dr. Richard G. Pellegrino, an M.D., Ph.D. in neurology and neuroscience, about the effect that music has on our emotions. He’s been working with the brain for 25 years, and Dr. Pellegrino says that nothing he does can affect a person’s state of mind the way one simple song can.

Pellegrino has worked with opium overdose victims in a New York City emergency room. As overdosing patients struggle for breath, ER staffs work feverishly to prepare injections of Naloxone, a drug that binds the opium high. So what does this have to do with music? Plenty. According to Pellegrino, listening to music generates chemicals in our brains called endorphins. These natural opioids produce a high chemically similar to an drug high. Experiments have shown that if you give Naloxone to a group of people and ask them to listen to their favorite music, it suddenly becomes an intellectual exercise, and the intensity of the emotions seems to diminish.

This makes sense. We’ve all experienced the emotions that accompany music. That’s why we listen. The promise of emotional impact is why you’re more likely to hear Queen’s "We Will Rock You" than a Celine Dion ballad at a sporting event. The people in the sound booth want to create a mood, and they know that music is a powerful way to do it.

But getting this effect while dumping verbal garbage into your brain is much like getting high on opium; it may feel so great that you don’t want it to quit. But ultimately, you’re doing great damage to yourself. As Dr. Pellegrino told us, "You can pour messages in, and if you pour the wrong messages in, they take on a particular power more than the listener understands."

Adapted from the booklet What’s Up With Today’s Entertainment?: Raising Media-Wise Teens, copyright 2001