The dark side of desensitization


Prof. Dr. Raouf Sallam

The dark side of desensitization


Raouf Sallam

The medical profession is the guardian of everybody’s health. The two main components of health are treatment and prevention. If we, members of the medical profession can claim that when it comes to treatment we are doing as best as we can considering the resources, we certainly cannot say the same about prevention. We offer the public a lot of advice and some service regarding the prevention of mainly metabolic diseases and we practice infection control in our facilities.

But what about trauma, we do nothing in the way of prevention in this category that kills 25% of the people. Maybe its not our job to prevent trauma on the road ,industrial trauma or trauma due civil or home violence. But we can at least raise our voices to get those responsible to do something to prevent or reduce trauma, instead of waiting in our castles, which we call hospitals, for the siren of the ambulance delivering one or more trauma victims,and if we manage to keep the victim alive we say hurray. This is not enough.

We should stand against anything that harms the human being whether the harm is somatic or psychic. Harmful agents may enter our bodies through the mouth as food and drugs or through the nose by inhaling smoke or through the skin by touching the harmful agent. But harm can also come through seeing or hearing, such harm, though usually indirect, but eventually significant, this is through the physiological process of desensitization.

Desensitization is a treatment modality. It is a process depending on the proven theory that repeated exposure of the individual to a certain stimulus makes him gradually less and less responsive to this stimulus, hence non reactive. Desensitization is used in medicine to treat allergy and phobia, where by repeated exposure of the patient to the stimulus that provokes the allergy or the phobia he will gradually be non responsive and hence non reactive to this stimulus, and hence cured.

This is the bright side of desensitization. But for every bright side there is a dark side, remember the moon. It is just by the laws of physics and the nature of human senses that the bright side appears first and the dark side is discovered later,this is just how it works. Let us take just one example of a harmful agent that invades our bodies through the ear and eye and delivered mainly through the public media, television,social media and others. An example that represents the dark side of desensitization, scenes of violence.

Repeated exposure of a individual to scenes of violence will gradually make him less responsive to violence, and gradually develop adaptation and habituation to violent acts and may be consider violence as the new normal. Even if he does not practice violence himself, its bad enough to be non reactive to violence. What applies to violence applies to every negative attitude or practice that are now rejected by the society can gradually become an optional and then an optimal reaction in such situations. Observational studies show that children playing violent video games internalized this as if the world is a hostile place and it is o.k. to behave aggressively. Also older adolescents are specially vulnerable to violent influences because of developmental processes that are taking place.

I think the medical profession has the right and duty to interfere to stop this dark side of desensitization that leads to psychic and somatic injuries that eventually will end in the laps of the medical professionals.

What applies to violence, applies to pornography,homosexuality,drug abuse,harassment. The media is desensitizing the public to all of these medically and socially harmful attitudes, behaviors and actions. As a medical profession we receive the subjects after the harm is done. How can we stay silent and not fight to stop the media from propagating these harmful agents. I think we should do something.

Naturally we should expect opposition to any trial to sensor the media. Freedom lobbyists will talk about freedom of press, freedom of opinion, freedom of expression, freedom of art, freedom of creation and even freedom of personal behavior. To them I would say there is no freedom to harm others. For ages now foods and drugs must take permission from the authorities before being put on the market. Now that in the last decade we found that desensitization is as harmful as bad food and bad drugs the same should apply to public media. The authorities should watch the content so that only non harmful material is offered for consumption by the public. Specially when this harmful material gets into our bodies through the eyes and ears in a way that is usually involuntary and even unavoidable.

It should at least be criminalized as polluting the environment.

Any material released for the public should be examined pending permission by an authority that values human health and manners. We should remember that the harm which falls directly on the person who consumed the harmful material will soon be reflected to others who did not consume the harmful agent. The whole society will be affected.

As medical students we were taught that “ A stimulus is a change of environment.”. Therefore if violence is insistently predominant in public media, it will be the environment itself. And any act of violence will not represent a change of environment and hence will not act as a stimulus and will not provoke any response .

This is the simple physiological explanation of public desensitization.


Raouf Sallam F.R.C.S.