Binge-Watching and Your Brain
By, Diane Braun
We all know that sitting for long periods of time isn’t good for your body, but what does sitting in front of the television do to your brain?
A recent conversation with a colleague made me curious about this phenomenon called “binge-watching.”
Binge-watching is defined as watching between two and six episodes of the same TV show in one sitting. A recent Netflix survey found that 61 percent of about 1500 on-line respondents say they binge-watch regularly.
Why do we do it? According to Robert F. Potter, PhD., director of the Institute for Communication Research at Indiana University, we do it for a few reasons:
- Production companies encourage us by offering up the next episode as soon as the previous one ends.
- Writers structure dramas with cliffhangers at the end of every episode.
- We want to keep watching. Television captures our attention in more ways than one. Plots, subplots and dialogue require us to pay close attention to scene changes. Our brain is hard-wired to monitor changes in our environment as a survival mechanism, so it’s hard for us to tear our eyes away. As long as something’s moving onscreen, we’re watching.
Sitting still for long periods of time slows one’s circulation and metabolism, resulting in sluggishness. At the same time, great TV shows with complicated storylines and complex characters can wear you out emotionally and mentally. Excessive TV watching has long been associated with health problems such as obesity and diabetes as well as mental health problems like depression.
Cliffhangers, on the other hand, leave us with a heightened sense of excitement. If something positive happens afterward, the excitement may carry over into your real life and make it more intense.
Your emotional state at the end of a show is also affected by how you felt when you started it up. Research shows that people who tried to forget about their anxieties by watching television had a 4 percent increased risk of developing insomnia.
This is similar to any addictive behavior, Potter says. If you use something to help you escape from problems you almost always feel worse later. Research shows that the longer you stay in the world of a TV show, the more it influences the way you see the real world. A better strategy is to use TV as a reward for confronting and dealing with an issue.
Want to break the binge addiction? If you are addicted to hour-long dramas, watch one episode and then just 20 minutes of the next episode. That will likely resolve the previous episode’s cliffhanger but won’t draw you in for the entire hour.
As this behavior continues to be a part of our culture, just remember to exercise some caution once one episode concludes and resist the urge to click that “next” button.