What Happens To Your Brain When You Binge-Watch A TV Series
Is catching up on your favorite show on this weekend’s to-do list? Here's what you need to know.
A Netflix survey found that 73% of participants reported positive feelings associated with binge-watching.
Here’s the scenario: It's the end of a long work day and you want to unwind with a show before bed. Suddenly, it’s one o’clock in the morning and you’ve got two episodes of the series left. You know you’ll regret it in the morning, but still, you click “Next Episode.”
It happens to all of us. With access to online streaming services, we have 24-hour, unlimited entertainment options, and we are making the most of that access. The average American watches TV for about 2.7 hours each day, about 20 hours per week, according to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics study.
From May 23rd to May 29th, viewers watched 5.1 billion minutes of Stranger Things on Netflix, after the first part of the fourth season was released on May 29th, 2022.
The new episodes accounted for 4 billion of the 5.1 billion minutes. Only two other shows have received more than 5 billion minutes of views in a week, Nielsen said: Tiger King (5.3 billion minutes) and Ozark (5.2 billion minutes) both did in March 2020, as Covid-19 lockdowns set in.
A Netflix survey shows that 73% of respondents felt “well” after binge-watching. However, if you binge-watched your favorite show recently, you might come away feeling tired. You might also feel depressed that there are no more episodes to see.
According to a Netflix poll, 61% of viewers watch between 2 and 6 episodes of a show in a single sitting.
Your Brain On Binge Watching, Explained
When binge-watching your favorite show, your brain continually produces dopamine, and your body experiences a drug-like high.
It feels pleasant to watch a show, but why is that? According to clinical psychologist Dr. Renee Carr, Psy.D., it's because of the chemicals released in our brain.
"When engaged in an enjoyable activity such as binge watching, your brain produces dopamine," she says. "This chemical gives the body a natural, internal reward of pleasure that reinforces continued engagement in that activity.
The brain's signal communicates to the body, 'This feels good, and you should keep doing this!' When binge-watching your favorite show, your brain continually produces dopamine, and your body experiences a drug-like high. You experience a pseudo-addiction to the show because you develop cravings for dopamine."
Dr. Carr claims that the process we go through when binge-watching is the same one that triggers a drug addiction. “The neuronal pathways that cause heroin and sex addictions are the same as an addiction to binge watching," Carr says, "Your body does not discriminate against pleasure. It can become addicted to any activity or substance consistently producing dopamine."
Our tendency to binge-watch is fueled by the time we spend engrossed in the lives of the fictional characters on a show. "Our brains code all experiences,
be it watched on TV, experienced life, read in a book or imagined, as 'real' memories," describes Gayani DeSilva, M.D., a psychiatrist at Laguna Family Health Center in California. "So when watching a TV program, the areas of the brain that are activated are the same as when experiencing a live event. We get drawn into storylines, become attached to characters, and truly care about outcomes of conflicts."
Dr. DeSilva claims that several different kinds of character involvement add to the connection we develop with the characters and, as a result, increase our propensity to binge-watch an entire show season.
"'Identification' is when we see a character in a show that we see ourselves in," she says. "'Modern Family,' for example, offers identification for the individual who is an adoptive parent, a gay husband, the father of a gay couple, the daughter of a father who marries a much younger woman, etc. The show is so popular because of its multiple avenues for identification.
'Wishful identification' is where plots and characters offer the opportunity for fantasy and immersion in the world the viewer wishes they lived in (ex. 'Gossip Girl,' 'America's Next Top Model'). Also, identifying with power, prestige, and success makes it pleasurable to keep watching. 'Parasocial interaction' is a one-way relationship where the viewer feels close to an actor or character in the TV show."
You've probably felt this involvement if you've ever thought that you and your favorite character would get along great in real life. The perceived likeness is another sort of character engagement. We appreciate the sense of "I know what that feels like" because it's reinforcing and familiar. It may also enhance the viewer's self-esteem when they see their own qualities valued in another person’s story. For instance, you might be drawn to television programs featuring strong female leads because you frequently play that role at work or in your social circles.
Binge Watching Can Be a Stress Reliever
According to Dr. John Mayer, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Doctor On Demand, binge-watching provides a momentary respite from the daily grind and can be a proper stress-reduction technique. "We are all bombarded with stress from everyday living, and with the nature of today’s world where information floods us constantly," Dr. Mayer explains. "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 a great boundary where troubles are kept at bay."
Relationships with people who have been watching the same show as you can be cultivated through binge-watching.
"It does give you something to talk about with other people," Dr. Ariane Machin, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and professor of psychology, says. "Cue the 'This Is Us' phenomenon and feeling left out if you didn’t know what was going on! Binge watching can make us feel a part of a community with those that have also watched it, where we can connect over an in-depth discussion of a show."
Watching a show with a character or situation that relates to what you do daily can also have a good effect on your real life. "Binge watching can be healthy if your favorite character is also a virtual role model for you," explains Carr, "or if the show's content gives you exposure to a career you are interested in. Although most characters and scenes are exaggerated for dramatic effect, it can be a good teaching lesson and case study.
For example, if a shy person wants to become more assertive, remembering how a strong character on the show behaves can give the shy person a vivid example of how to advocate for herself or try something new. Or, if experiencing a personal crisis, remembering how a favorite character or TV role model solved a problem can give the binge watcher new, creative or bolder solutions."
The Let Down: What Happens When the Binge Is Over
Have you ever experienced sadness after a series ended? According to Mayer, we truly feel a sense of loss after finishing a series that we binge-watched. "We often go into a state of depression because of the loss we are experiencing," he claims. "We call this situational depression because an identifiable, tangible event stimulates it, and our brain stimulation is lowered (depressed) like in other forms of depression."
In a University of Toledo study, 142 out of 408 participants said they were binge-watchers. Compared to individuals who did not binge watch, this group reported increased stress, anxiety, and sadness levels. But when you look at the habits that go along with binge-watching, it's easy to understand why it can start to affect our mental health. First, binge-watching may rapidly become a solitary activity if you're not doing it with a roommate or spouse.
We will eventually "starve to death" emotionally if we isolate ourselves from others and become overly reliant on TV at the expense of real human interaction.
"When we substitute TV for human relations, we disconnect from our human nature and substitute for [the] virtual," Dr. Judy Rosenberg, psychologist and founder of the Psychological Healing Center in Sherman Oaks, CA, says. "We are wired to connect, and when we disconnect from humans and over-connect to TV at the cost of human connection, eventually we will 'starve to death' emotionally. Real relationships and the work of life is more difficult, but at the end of the day more enriching, growth producing and connecting."
It's an indication that this habit is dangerous if you select a night in with Netflix over spending time with friends and family.
How to Binge-Watch Responsibly
Setting limits for the time you spend watching television is the key to enjoying the benefits of binge-viewing without experiencing its drawbacks. However, this may be challenging when facing cliffhangers that might be addressed if you only stay up for one more episode. "In addition to pleasure, we often binge-watch to obtain psychological closure from the previous episode," explains Carr. "However, because each new episode leaves you with more questions, you can engage in healthy binge-watching by setting a predetermined end time for the binge. For example, commit to saying, 'after three hours, I'm going to stop watching this show for the night."
Suppose you find it challenging to quit bingeing after you set a time limit (and find it too easy to tell yourself just ten more minutes). In that case, Carr advises committing to a specific amount of episodes at the beginning. "Try identifying a specific number of episodes to watch, then watching only the first half of the episode you have designated as your stopping point," she suggests. "Usually, questions from the previous episode will be answered by this halfway mark, and you will have enough psychological closure to feel comfortable turning off the TV."
Additionally, be sure to balance your binge with other activities. "After binge-watching, go out with friends or do something fun," says Carr. "By creating an additional source of pleasure, you will be less likely to become addicted to or binge-watch the show. Increase your physical exercise activity or join an adult athletic league. By increasing your heart rate and stimulating your body, you can give yourself a more effective and longer-term experience of fun and excitement."