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The Psychology Behind Binge-Watching

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Now that we’re not allowed to go out and spend every day of our lives at home, one of the things we do to fight boredom and anxiety aside from scrolling through our social media feeds is binge-watching.

It may not be a new concept as many people do this before especially on their favourite movies and shows through television and DVDs or what we call, movie marathon, but now, the concept of binge-watching is related to online streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, IFlix, Viu, etc. 

According to a 2017 survey from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American watches 2.7 hours of TV per day or nearly 20 hours each week. Much of that time is spent binge-watching ;  a 2013 Netflix survey found that among nearly 1,500 surveyed TV streamers, 61% of users binge-watch shows regularly which in this case defined binge-watching as watching two or three episodes of a single series in one session.

While binge-watching is an intriguing phenomenon, neuroscience and psychology explains why we love to binge-watch and what happens to our brain when we binge-watch.

Binge-watching can be a form of addiction

Have you ever wondered why you feel good after watching episode after episode of your favourite series? According to Dr Renee Carr, a clinical psychologist, says it’s due to the chemicals being released in our brain. This can be experienced when you watch films on soap 2 day

‘When engaged in an activity that’s enjoyable such as binge-watching, your brain produces dopamine,’ she explains. ‘This chemical gives the body a natural, internal reward of pleasure that reinforces continued engagement in that activity. It is the brain’s signal that communicates to the body, ‘This feels good. You should keep doing this!’ When binge-watching your favourite show, your brain is continually producing dopamine, and your body experiences a drug-like high. You experience a pseudo-addiction to the show because you develop cravings for dopamine.’

According to Dr Carr, the process we experience while binge-watching is the same one that occurs when a drug or other type of addiction begins. ‘The neuronal pathways that cause heroin and sex addictions are the same as an addiction to binge-watching,’ Dr Carr adds. ‘Your body does not discriminate against pleasure. It can become addicted to any activity or substance that consistently produces dopamine.’

Over time, though, our brains produce less dopamine from the same level of activity as we build up a level of tolerance. It takes more and more of the same activity to give us that same feeling of enjoyment, making binge-watching that much harder to stop.

That being said, have you ever felt a kind of loss or mourning when you’re forced to stop watching your favourite series (or when you finish the entire series)?

According to Matthew Schneier of the New York Times, that experience or feeling is called, ‘post-binge malaise’. It is the mourning or emptiness we feel when we finish an entire series and it 

According to a study from the University of Toledo, ‘post-binge malaise’ doesn’t do us any good, because they found that binge-watchers reported higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. 

Another research also shows that binge-watching streaming media is directly related to a reduction in sleep quality  –  an effect that isn’t seen with traditional TV series when new episodes are only released once each week. And we all know that lack of sleep can affect our overall health and can make us prone to serious medical conditions such as heart diseases, high blood pressure, and obesity.

Humans are being completely immersed

Arjan Chatterjee, Professor of Neurology at Penn Medicine, binge-watching is about the person’s experience of being completely immersed. According to him: ‘Binge-watching is a very recent phenomenon, but there has been research done on immersion in literature and other kinds of narrative forms such as movies, and to some extent video games. Binge-watching, and long serial television shows would be similar to those categories of experiences.’

He also explains that: ‘When watching a show or movie, or reading a book that you just can’t put down, part of that “what happens next?” feeling comes from having put yourself in the role. “You forget about yourself as you’re immersed. With good writing, you are transported away from where you are. You could be on your couch, but you lose track of the physicality of where you are when you’re transported into the story.’

Humans connect emotionally to stories

According to Edward Titchener, a British psychologist, we become glued to complex, emotionally-charged stories because of our ability to recognise the feelings of others. A newly identified phenomenon at the time, he was the person who coined the term empathy in 1909. 

In addition to identifying others’ discomfort or elation, ‘cognitive empathyexamines how humans can also adopt others’ psychological perspectives, including those of fictional characters. It’s such a universal emotional state that psychological tests (through the use of puppets, pictures, and videos) have even been developed to study empathy in preschool-age children.

There was also another research that was conducted to study storytelling and the science of empathy. It was done by Paul Zak, a neuro-economist.

In his study, participants were shown a video about a boy with terminal cancer accompanied by the perspective of the boy’s father. While the boy was carefree and unaware of his fate, his father understandably found his last months with his son difficult and trying.

There were two primary emotion that was shown by the participants – distress and empathy – as evidenced by raised levels of cortisol (stress hormone) and oxytocin (a hormone linked to human connection and empathy) in viewers.

Zak also found out that the amount of cortisol and oxytocin released in the participants served as a predictor of how much participants were willing to donate when offered the opportunity to donate money to a charity that helps sick children, after the video. The research then suggests that empathetic feelings are a testament to our compulsions as social beings – even in the case of a fictional narrative.

Binge-watching can be a stress reliever

While a study from the University of Toledo said that binge-watching increases stress, anxiety, and depression, Dr John Mayer, a clinical psychologist, believes that the act of binge-watching can be a perfect stress management tool as it offers us a temporary escape from our daily lives. 

According to him: ‘We are all bombarded with stress from everyday living, and with the nature of today’s world where information floods us constantly,’ Dr Mayer says. ‘It is hard to shut our minds down and tune out the stress and pressures. A binge can work like a steel door that blocks our brains from thinking about those constant stressors that force themselves into our thoughts. Binge-watching can set up a great boundary where troubles are kept at bay.’

Final thoughts

Binge-watching can have a positive and negative effect on our health as it is wired like an addiction in our brain. However, most people use binge-watching as a stress reliever, especially in our current situation. Be a responsible binge-watcher and watch out for your health while enjoying the films and series you love. Happy watching!


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