Unreason and me(dia)

This video is the latest YouTube example of what Susan Jacoby writes about in her new book, The Age of American Unreason. The question is, are Americans hostile to knowledge?

What do you think I am? A clique chic geek? How should I know?!!!

Making them weep

One of the goals I’ve always had in a fundraising video is to “make them weep”. An article in the Washington Post explores the reasons why the media is so effective at stimulating tears.

Desson Thomson compares the findings of two scientific studies that use movies to stimulate weeping. William Frey and Muriel Lanseth published their results in the 1980s, in a book entitled Crying, the Mystery of Tears. An article by Joe LaPointe in the New York Times July 9, 2003 quotes findings from Frey’s book as saying that men cry 1.4 times a month, while women cry 5.3 times a month. Frey found that crying releases internal toxins, and has a therapeutic effect.

Movies, of course, can make weeping a goal without apology. The purpose for attending a movie is to arouse an emotional response. In college communication, however, there is an integrity issue. We are speaking to an audience in order to present facts and invite their emotional involvement with us.

According to Frey and Lanseth, the reason for crying while watching a movie is empathy with the characters.

Tom Lutz, a sociologist quoted by Thomson, disagrees with the notion of a therapeutic benefit to crying. He says that the choke-up emotion arises when we are internally conflicted. Part of us is happy, part sad. The bittersweet conflict causes us to “strum a mental guitar chord that combines positive, major feelings with sadder, minor tones. And the tears flow before we know it.”

Mary Beth Oliver of Penn State says that tear-jerker media “cause us to contemplate what it is about human life that’s important and meaningful…. Tears aren’t just tears of sadness, they’re tears of searching for the meaning of our fleeting existence.”

Blogger A. Hart quotes Hubert Humphrey (“A man without tears is a man without a heart.”) and Washington Irving:

“There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of… unspeakable love.”

My view is that both scientific viewpoints (empathy vs. internal emotional conflict) are saying the same thing. Empathy with characters is our own mind relating our story to the story we see presented before us. Research into the amygdala shows that emotional memory is largely a pattern-recognition process. When we see a pattern on screen that jives with a pattern in our own emotional memories, the tears begin to flow.

That’s why I believe it takes a little time to develop a connection with the characters on the screen, learn their story and relate to the significant forces in their lives. I often see news accounts or other videos that attempt to short-circuit this process. Often, they’ll cue the violins or introduce the slow-mo as a manipulative effect, in order to drag an emotional response out of viewers.

It’s far better to refrain from overtly emotional trappings until the scene itself, the story we are telling, is authentically told and fully actualized. Then the reality of what is being witnessed can touch those soul-chords without making the audience feel as though they’ve been manipulated.

No question, strong visual memories such as graduation, victory on the athletic field, hearing the alma mater etc. are what make alumni vulnerable to manipulation in this way… so I try to reserve these tools for genuine moments when the stars are aligned and the logical basis for agreement is already established … the case has been made, so to speak, and now sympathetic or empathetic emotion has become appropriate without violating the integrity of the college’s communication effort.