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The train derailment in Spain is the latest in a series of disasters this year that have been caught on video and been played over and over again in the media.
What kind of psychological effect does that repeated exposure to tragic disaster imagery have on us?
“I think it does quite a few things to us,” Eric Wilson, author of “Everyone Loves A Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away” told Here & Now. “Too much can actually be traumatic for someone watching. Also, watching these videos too much can lead to a numbness.”
Trying to get media outlets not to show the videos is not the answer, Wilson said.
“It’s up to the viewers to choose how often we watch these videos and ultimately figure out why we’re watching these videos. It we’re doing it for a cheap thrill, obviously we should question ourselves. If in the midst of watching these videos we’re thinking more deeply about suffering and the meaning of death then perhaps meditating on these videos isn’t such a bad thing,” he said.
When there is a major disaster, people may feel compelled to watch the videos as a way of connecting to what’s happening.
“In a world where we often feel isolated, where we often feel trapped in front of our own computer screen, trapped in our own rooms having virtual experiences not real contact, suddenly we’re part of an international community of mourners, and I think that feels satisfying to us,” Wilson said. “We are all at the same time mourning this tragedy in Spain.”
While some people may be desensitized by disaster videos, others may have the opposite experience.
Here & Now co-host Jeremy Hobson grew up in Tornado Alley, and a tornado even hit his hometown once when he was a kid. But he was never afraid of tornadoes.
“I was always fascinated by tornadoes,” Hobson said. “I wanted to see them up close — until the age of YouTube videos, where we see up close what happens when a tornado hits … So now, after seeing so many of these videos up-close and what a tornado really does, I don’t want to see one. I don’t want to be anywhere near one.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
The death toll from yesterday's train crash in Spain now stands at 78. And investigators are focusing on the mounting evidence that the driver may have been going far too fast as the train made a big turn. It is the latest in a series of disasters this year, all of which have come with vivid sound and video. There was that train crash in Lac-Megantic in Quebec caught on video which starts out with the video taker saying, don't worry about me.
(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDED ARCHIVE)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking foreign language) Oh, my God. Oh, my God.
HOBSON: There was also the video from the crash of the Asiana flight as it was landing in San Francisco.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Look at that one. Look how his nose up in the air. Oh, my God. Oh, it's an accident.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh, you're filming it, too.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Oh, my God.
HOBSON: And there was the video of the massive meteorite that landed in Russia, injuring hundreds of people in February of this year. It was recorded by many dashboard cameras.
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HOBSON: So what does this do to us psychologically, to keep seeing these disaster videos over and over again? Eric Wilson is professor of English at Wake Forest University. He's the author of the book "Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can't Look Away." And he's with us now from the studios of WFDD in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. And, Eric, start by telling us, why can't we look away?
ERIC WILSON: Well, there are many reasons, ranging from the most basic physiological to more complicated psychological reasons. Our morbid curiosity basically brings out what is the worst in us and the best in us. On a very basic level, when we witness violence, destruction, we have a physiological rush. Our heart rate goes up. We release hormones. But I think, also, there's psychological draws to macabre experiences. I think there's a feeling of we're looking at something we should not see and there's a titillation to the taboo. We feel bad for looking at it, but, yet, we get a rush because we can look at it.
HOBSON: And now, we really can look at it because everybody's got a smartphone with a camera on it, and everything is recorded.
WILSON: That's right. And being able to watch these videos in the privacy of your own home adds to the excitement. We know that no one can watch us watching. But I think, too, when we watch a disaster, there's also a feeling of relief sometimes. We often feel, gosh, I'm glad that wasn't me, and that can be selfish obviously. It can be sort of exploiting someone else's suffering for your own little, quick pleasure. But I think, sometimes, that feeling of relief might turn into something a little nobler in us, a feeling of empathy. That when we see someone else suffering, we also might imagine, well, gosh. What if that happened to me? What if that happened to one of my loved ones? And it can open us up into a more kind of generous sensibility toward the world.
HOBSON: But what does it do to us? I mean, this is something that has not been around for a long time. We haven't had a video of every single disaster for decades and decades and decades. This is pretty new.
WILSON: I think it does quite a few things to us. On the one hand, being able to have full access all the time to these destructive videos, it can be traumatic after a while. I read accounts of some of the physicians and rescue workers on the ground at 9/11. And they were deeply traumatized because there was no buffer between themselves and the suffering. So too much can actually be traumatic for someone viewing. Also, watching these videos too much can lead to a kind of numbness. You see one disaster video, you need more and more and more destructions, more and more and more video to give you that rush that you need.
HOBSON: Do you think that media outlets have a responsibility to not rerun it over and over again as many of them did with the train crash in Spain yesterday?
WILSON: I think that this is information out there in the world, and it's going to be difficult to get media outlets not to show this. I mean, one can show these videos in the name of sound journalism, I would imagine. I think it's up to the viewers to choose how often we watch these videos, and ultimately figure out why we're watching these videos. If we're doing it for a cheap thrill, obviously, we should question ourselves. If in the midst of watching these videos, we're thinking more deeply about the meaning of suffering and the meaning of death, then perhaps meditating on these videos isn't such a bad thing.
HOBSON: So I grew up in Tornado Alley, and a tornado even hit my hometown when I was a kid, and I always fascinated by tornadoes. I wanted to see them. I wanted to see them up close until the age of YouTube videos of tornadoes where we see what happens up close when a tornado hits. And I just want to play one video.
(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDED ARCHIVE)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: OK. Just a little bit. Oh, my gosh. It's right there. OK. Just go slow, go slow. It's going to cross the road right there. It's going to cross the road. You see? Oh, gosh. OK. Got it. Oh, my gosh. Oh, my gosh.
HOBSON: So now, after seeing so many of these videos up close and what a tornado really does, I don't want to see one. I don't want to be anywhere near one.
WILSON: I had that feeling after watching the 9/11 footage. I had that feeling after watching footage one of the beheadings in the early days of the Iraq war. I find that my appetite for that destruction is actually not that big, even though I'm interested in macabre experience. I ultimately think it comes down to personal sensibility.
I will say this, though, when there is a kind of international disaster, I think another draw for watching this is is that in a world where we often feel isolated, when we often feel trapped in front of our own computer screen, trapped in our rooms, having virtual experiences, not real contact, suddenly we're part of an international community of mourners. And I think that feels satisfying to us. We are all, at the same time, mourning this horrible tragedy in Spain, and that often happens, too, when a celebrity dies. So there again, I think your motivation behind why you watch these videos is really decisive for the kind of experience it's going to be.
HOBSON: There is a novel by Jonathan Safran for - about the World Trade Center collapse, and there is a little boy whose father is killed in it after he jumps out of the tower as many people did in real life. And the little boy gets a flipbook, and he flips it so that he sees his father jumping back into the tower. And that is what soothes him and brings him some peace. What do you think about that?
WILSON: I read that novel over the summer, and was profoundly moved by it. And I think that this is a key point that the novel makes - is that imagination plays a tremendous role in how we're going to be affected by this violent footage. If we can imagine the violence in such a way that it becomes meaningful for us, suddenly, suffering can become meaningful. Death can become meaningful.
And I think there can be something healing in watching the videos with a certain frame of mind, a kind of generous opening toward the fact that we all suffer. And if we all suffer together, then in some ways, we are made more human and we are more healed when we recognize that.
HOBSON: Eric Wilson is professor of English at Wake Forest University. He's the author of the book, "Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can't Look Away." Eric, thanks so much for speaking with us.
WILSON: You're welcome.
HOBSON: Well, what do you do? Do you look away or do you watch when these disaster clips come on? We've seen in just the last 24 hours this train wreck over and over again on CNN. Go to hereandnow.org, and let us know.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.