Mind & Body

This Is Your Brain on Binge-Watching

Confession time. Three days after "Stranger Things 2" came out, we were all caught up with the fate of Hawkins, Indiana. Two days after "Sense8" season 2 was released, we had found out exactly how the whole gang made it to their next cliffhanger. And when it comes to British shows, those seasons are 6 episodes long — we can knock those out in a day, no problem. But why do people like binging so much? And what are the hidden dangers? In short, what happens to your brain on a binge?

The Bright Side of Binging

Most of us who subscribe to a video-streaming service recognize the let-down feeling that comes when you reach the final episode of a great TV show. And in the next section, we'll get into the deets about what's actually going on in your brain when that happens. But first, we thought it would be worthwhile to point out some of the positive facets of binge-watching.

Binging is a stress-reliever. In a world where we are constantly connected to all of our responsibilities, a TV show binge can be a handy way to keep stressors from infiltrating your brain. "Binge watching can set up a great boundary where troubles are kept at bay," says Dr. John Mayer, a clinical psychologist with Doctor on Demand.

Binging builds community. Surprised? Binge-watching a popular show is a great way to build relationships with people you might not otherwise have much in common with. If you're up for it, you might even be able to turn acquaintances into friends by inviting them over when the next season comes out.

Binging can be good for your job. Speaking with NBC, psychologist Dr. Renee Carr made this rather unexpected point: "Binge-watching can be healthy if your favorite character is also a virtual role model for you." If you see Princess Carolyn from "Bojack Horseman" as the self-driven career cat-woman you could be, she might just help you get there.

Binging's Dark Underbelly

So there you go — you don't have to feel terrible about your "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" habit. But there are still plenty of psychological dangers of just leaning into an 8-hour sesh. Here's where the trouble starts (and what you can do to avoid it).

Binging is associated with increased stress and anxiety. According to a study from the University of Toledo, binge-watchers are more prone to depression and high anxiety. That might be because it's also associated with isolation. So next time, try inviting others into your Netflix cocoon.

Binging builds relationships with fictional people. We've already told you about "parasocial relationships." They're the real relationships that you can develop with fake people — and when the TV shows those fake people live in end, it hurts. Like, "breakup" hurts. So try to keep some perspective, and spend time with flesh-and-blood people when you can.

Binging takes a lot of time. Here's something we bet you can relate with: the feeling of a night wasted in front of the TV. It doesn't just make you feel bad for the wasted time. It's also exhausting. Before your next binge, set a limit for yourself. Say, three hours, or six episodes. It can go a long way toward keeping your habit from becoming a digital monkey on your back.

Curious about how internet technology worms its way into your brain? Check out "Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology," a professor of psychology's examination of digital opiates. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Why Do You Binge-Watch TV?

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Key Facts In This Video

  1. Scientists think binge-watching may have something to do with empathy. In one study, volunteers who watched a short film about a boy with cancer increased their levels of cortisol and oxytocin, which is related to human caring. 01:01

  2. It's been shown that reading award-winning fiction and watching critically acclaimed TV shows increases a person's performance on various tests of the theory of mind, or the ability to ascribe a mental state to another person and use it to predict their actions. 02:45

  3. Well-made shows that make good use of framing and color effects are able to tell the viewer what to focus on and how to feel. Studies show that more a scene tries to dictate how a viewer should respond, the more focused the viewer will be. 04:34

Written by Reuben Westmaas January 4, 2018