The modern person is daily inundated with a flood of media news coverage, television commercials, billboards, and advertisements. Media is everywhere and unavoidable. Urbanites can hardly step outside their door without being bombarded with a plethora of media stimuli. In spite of this, however, millions of people are not being rushed to emergency rooms as a result of this deluge of stimuli. Instead, there is an anesthetic effect, a numbness that has dulled the senses from noticing each and every stimulus.
One can extend the meaning of numbness to its causes and effects. Marshall McLuhan discusses numbness as the desensitization of the mind and body due to the stimulating shock of new technology. Walter Benjamin’s discussion of artistic media as a distraction is also a type of numbness caused lack of attention to the media. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s analysis of the homogenizing power of the culture industry can also be perceived as causing a numbing effect on the masses. By these few examples, it is apparent that the concept of numbness can be applied to many levels in media theory: to the individual versus the “masses” and to the cognitive mind versus the physical senses. Psychological studies have shown a negative correlation between overexposure of media violence and sympathy for violent events. On another level, numbness can also be interpreted as a type of blindness. Psychological studies inattentional or perceptual blindness refers to the inability of noticing an object when it is actually there.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, numb is derived from the Middle English word nim which means to take. In its various usages, take could mean to get a hold of, to appropriate, to capture, to cause to accompany, or to take up. In the seventeenth century use of the word, the verb nim is more widely used colloquially to mean steal or pilfer. From that meaning, the modern usage of the word “numb” is taken to mean a stealing of the senses or the notion of being “taken” with shock or coldness. In the literal sense, numbness is a symptom that affects the body, making it “deprived of physical sensation or of the power of movement, esp. of extreme cold.” In its extended usage, numbness is being “emotionally deadened, unresponsive, or spent, as the result of grief, shock, fear, etc.”
In his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan discusses numbness as a defensive reaction of the body to block out new sensations, especially those caused by new technology. He equates technology as the extensions of man, with electricity serving as the extension of the central nervous system. In the chapter, “The Gadget Lover,” he regards every extension of the body as a self-amputation. In McLuhan’s physiological rendition of the term, numbness or autoamputation is the body’s way of maintaining equilibrium when the “perceptual power cannot locate or avoid the cause of irritation [...] that is imposed by various pressures” (42). He specifically highlights the negative impact of new technology, which simultaneously acts as a “counter-irritant” yet “brings about a new intensity of action by its amplification of a separate or isolated function” (42). To McLuhan, technological innovations are double-edged swords that make human lives easier, but also create new forms of stress. He says, “The stimulus to new invention is the stress of acceleration of pace and increase of load” (42). As a result of this increase in speed, the central nervous system has no choice but to numb itself from this new intensity. Thus, a new extension or technological invention is also a self-amputation. Since the body cannot handle the stress of new technology, it must numb or disconnect itself from its perception of that new stressor, thereby amputating the new extension of itself. He states that “the successive mechanizations of the various physical organs […] have made too violent and superstimulated a social experience for the central nervous systems to endure” (43). Numbness of the senses sets in as various extensions of the human body have become too much to manage. McLuhan says, “Shock induces a generalized numbness or an increased threshold to all types of perception. The victim seems immune to pain or sense” (44). In this case, the victim is man, who has extended himself so far that he is vulnerable to the intense and rapid stimuli of new technology.
McLuhan’s conception of numbness relates to Walter Benjamin’s idea of shock and distraction. An existing keyword essay on shock also relates to the concept of numbness. Will Slocombe’s essay defines shock as “a sudden debilitating effect produced by over-stimulation of nerves.” Shock is therefore the cause of numbness, the body’s reaction to excessive amounts of stimulation. Benjamin talks about the feelings of shock and distraction that audiences feel when viewing a film or perceiving an artistic object. In this case, shock and distraction cause numbness.
In his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” Walter Benjamin discusses mass participation in the arts as a distraction. Benjamin discusses film as a type of distraction. The audience is distracted by the constant changes in scene and the onrush of visual stimuli. According to Benjamin, this has a “percussive effect on the spectator” (119). In this case, the distracting element in film is caused by the shock of multiple stimuli attacking the visual field at once. Benjamin discusses buildings both as a shelter and as a work of art. He believes that people interact with buildings in a purely habitual manner and distinguishes between the tactile and optical reception of a building. He says, “Tactile reception comes about […] by way of habit, [which] largely determines even the optical reception of architecture, which spontaneously takes the form of casual noticing, rather than attentive observation” (120). This perception of architecture can be interpreted as a type of visual numbing effect, and largely relates to the psychological term of “inattentional blindness.” Benjamin’s argument is that people’s disregard of buildings is due to a habitual tactile response of not noticing huge, inanimate objects. Inattentional or perceptual blindness describes the phenomenon in which people do not perceive objects in plain sight either because there is no frame of reference or there are mental distractions (Goldstein 126). This is not necessarily a negative effect; however, it merely shows the limited capacity for humans to process a world filled with endless stimuli. Instead of being constantly overwhelmed by it, our brains of developed a capacity to focus only on one thing at a time.
Besides the visual sensory level, numbness can also occur on a cognitive level. In their essay, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer discuss the omnipotence of the culture industry as it creates social and economical homogeneity. This sameness can produce a collective numbness that becomes immune to innovation and personal tastes. According to Adorno and Horkheimer, the culture industry creates desires or more specifically, “identical needs in innumerable places to be satisfied with identical goods” (2). For Adorno and Horkheimer, the culture industry is the strong arm of capitalism, using tools of entertainment to homogenize people’s desires and break down individual resistance. This also relates to a social psychology term called “herd mentality,” in which people adopt certain trends or behaviors because everyone else is doing it. On an individual level, herd mentality can have a numbing effect on individual thoughts and actions. In Adorno and Horkheimer’s terms, the culture industry has taken advantage of this tendency to “follow the crowd” and uses entertainment media to create mass control. These forms of entertainment include the sound film and slapstick comedies, which Adorno and Horkheimer believe are really tools the culture industry uses to blur reality and suppress individual resistance. They believe that “the sound film, far surpassing the theater of illusion, leaves no room for imagination or reflection […] forc[ing] its victims to equate it directly with reality” (4). Their perception of the sound film that merges reality and illusion causes a collective numbness. Here, the audience is cognitively numbed to the fantastical elements of sound film since it has become so sensually persuasive and realistic. Instead, Adorno and Horkheimer believe that the audience can no longer distinguish between fantasy and reality. Adorno and Horkheimer also discuss collective laughter. While Benjamin depicts collective laughter as “healing outbreak from mass psychosis” (118), Adorno and Horkheimer view amusement more as “organized cruelty” (10). In fact, they go on to say that “laughter is a disease which has attacked happiness and is drawing it into its worthless totality. To laugh at something is always to deride it” (11). They believe that the culture industry uses amusement to suppress individual resistance by training the masses into thinking that harm is acceptable. They said, “Donald Duck in the cartoons and the unfortunate in real life get their thrashing so that the audience can learn to take their own punishment” (10). In this instance, film [link] has become a hypnotic tool that has convinced the masses to endure their harsh working lives.
In more recent times, the idea of desensitization or numbness is a pressing issue for a world that is constantly exposed to violence from news broadcasts, television dramas, and movies. Thomas et al. conducted an experiment entitled “Desensitization to portrayals of real-life aggression as a function of television violence,” which was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The experimenters wanted to test the widely speculated effects of television violence on emotional responses to real-life violence. In this experiment, participants watched “excerpts from violent police drama or a segment of an exciting but not violent volleyball game before watching a videotaped scene of real aggression” (450). In the first experiment, eight to ten year old children watched a film of preschoolers fighting. In the second experiment, college students watched scenes from the riots of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Participants were tested for emotionality by the measurement of changes in skin resistance. Thomas et al. concluded that “subjects who previously had viewed the aggression drama were less aroused by the scenes of real aggression than were subjects who had seen the control film” (450). In effect, people who had viewed violence beforehand were desensitized from real-life violence afterwards. A more recent article has come to a similar conclusion on desensitization, but only as a result of video games. In a study by Funk et al., video game violence was associated with lower empathy while both video game and movie violence were associated with violent attitudes. However, they concluded that there is still more research to be done in this area.
McLuhan’s discussion of media as the extension of man reveals his fear of the numbing effect of new technology. His usage of numbness is caused by fear, whereas the concept of numbness appears in Benjamin’s essay as a mental reaction of shock and distraction. Adorno and Horkheimer’s discussion of the culture industry concerns social control and the collective numbness to reality through mass media. More recently, the desensitization of media is a high concern, especially for parents who are afraid their children are not distinguishing between the illusion in media violence and reality. Desensitization or numbness is still an important psychological phenomenon, especially in the twenty first century. As the internet has made the transmission of information lightning-quick, older forms of media are expanding and finding more ways to create a bigger impact on the audience.
Adorno, Theodor W. and Max Horkheimer. “The culture industry: Enlightenment as mass deception.” Dialectic of Enlightenment. London: Verso, 1979, 120-167.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” (2nd version)
Buck-Morss, Susan. “Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin’s Artwork Essay Reconsidered,” October, Vol. 62 (Fall 1992): 3-41.
Funk, Jeanne B., Baldacci, Heidi, Pasold, Tracie and Baumgardner, Jennifer. “Violence exposure in real-life, video games, television, movies, and the internet: Is there desensitization?” Journal of Adolescence. 2004 Feb Vol 27(1) 23-39
Goldstein, E. Bruce. Sensation and Perception. 7th ed. California: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA. 1994.
Thomas, Margaret H., Horton, Robert W., Lippincott, Elaine C., and Drabman, Ronald S. “Desensitization to portrayals of real-life aggression as a function of television violence.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.1977 Jun Vol 35(6) 450-458.