After a long day at work, you plop down in front of the TV and decide to start watching that new show everyone has been raving about. Cut to midnight, and you’ve completed half a season — and you’re tempted to stay up just one more episode, despite the fact that you’ll be paying for it the next morning at work.
When you binge-watch a TV show, what happens to your brain?
It occurs to the most well-intentioned of us. We have access to hundreds of show alternatives thanks to streaming sites like Netflix and Hulu, and we can watch them all in one sitting for a monthly charge that is less than a week’s worth of lattes. Isn’t this a great moment to be alive? And we’re taking use of it to the fullest. According to a poll conducted by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American spends 2.7 hours each day watching television, totaling about 20 hours per week. In terms of how much binge viewing we do, according to a Netflix poll, 61 percent of consumers watch between 2 and 6 episodes of a show in one sitting. According to a recent study, most Netflix subscribers prefer to binge-watch a series rather than take their time, with the average season being completed in one week (shows that fall in the Sci-Fi, horror and thriller categories are the most likely to be binged). According to Nielsen, 361,000 people watched all nine episodes of ‘Stranger Things’ season 2 on the first day of its release. Of course, if it didn’t feel nice, we wouldn’t do it. In fact, according to the Netflix survey, 73 percent of participants expressed good views about binge-watching.
However, if you spent last weekend binge-watching season two of “Stranger Things,” you may have been fatigued by the end — and downright depressed that there are no more episodes to see. There are a few reasons why binge-watching makes us feel so good — and then leaves us emotionally exhausted on the couch. Here’s what happens to our brains when we sit down to watch a marathon, as well as how to watch responsibly. It feels pleasant to watch episode after episode of a show, but why is that? It’s because of the chemicals released in our brain, according to clinical psychologist Dr. Renee Carr, Psy.D. “Your brain produces dopamine when you engage in a pleasurable activity like binge viewing,” she explains. “This chemical provides the body with a natural source of pleasure that encourages continuing participation in the activity. The brain sends a signal to the body that says, ‘This feels nice.’ Keep doing what you’re doing!’ When you binge watch your favorite show, your brain produces dopamine at a rapid rate, giving you a drug-like high.
Because you acquire dopamine cravings, you create a pseudo-addiction to the show.” Dr. Carr claims that the process we go through when binge watching is the same one that occurs when a drug or other sort of addiction starts. “The same brain mechanisms that underlie heroin and sex addictions are the same neuronal pathways that drive binge watching addiction,” Carr argues. “Your body makes no distinction between pleasure and pain. It can get addicted to any activity or drug that creates dopamine on a regular basis.” Our binge watching experience is fueled by spending so much time engrossed in the lives of the people represented on a show. “All events, whether they are watched on TV, lived, read in a book, or imagined, are coded as’real’ memories in our brains,” says Gayani DeSilva, M.D., a psychiatrist at Laguna Family Health Center in California. “As a result, the parts of the brain that are active when viewing a TV show are the same as when experiencing a live event. We are attracted into plot lines, grow engaged to people, and care deeply about conflict resolution.”
According to Dr. DeSilva, there are several types of character involvement that add to the relationship we develop with the characters, which makes us more willing to binge watch an entire episode. “When we see a character in a show that we recognize as ourselves,” she explains. “‘Modern Family,’ for example, provides identification for adoptive parents, gay husbands, fathers of gay couples, daughters of fathers who marry much younger women, and so on.” The show’s popularity stems from the numerous ways in which viewers may identify with it. ‘Wishful identification’ occurs when plots and characters allow viewers to immerse themselves in a world they wish they lived in (ex. ‘Gossip Girl,’ ‘America’s Next Top Model’). It’s also enjoyable to keep watching because of the identification with power, prestige, and accomplishment. The term “parasocial contact” refers to a one-way relationship in which the spectator develops a strong bond with a TV actor or character.
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