The neuropsychology of binge watching

According to the American Psychological Association, there has been a significant uptick in anxiety disorders over the past five years. There has also been a steady increase in binge watching, including increased rates of subscription to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime streaming, and Disney+. Binge watching and brain functioning go hand-in-hand.

Dopamine high
Watching episode after episode of a show can feel so good. When engaged in an activity that’s enjoyable such as binge watching, your brain produces dopamine. This chemical gives the body a natural, internal reward of pleasure that reinforces continued engagement in that activity. When binge watching your favorite show, your brain is continually producing a cascade of dopamine, over an extended period of time, creating feelings of relaxation and pleasure. Just like any other dopamine high, we want to keep the good feelings going, so we might stay up a little too late.

Memory coding
Our brains code all experiences, fictional, visual, IRL. When we remember storylines of shows, they are actually stored as memories not dissimilar from our own experiences. This way, we can become immersed with characters, plots, and events that occur on the screen. We may identify with characters or themes in our favorite shows. One young client tells me, “it feels like it’s happening to me, but it’s on the show”.

Modeling
Many of our favorite shows may have characters that we admire. These role models or aspirational goals may keep us hooked on who we would like to be. Sometimes, they can motivate our goals; in other instances, they may produce feelings of dissatisfaction or low self-esteem, if we feel we cannot measure up.

Distraction
Distraction is a tool that’s frequently used for stress management, and an anxiety reducing strategy taught by therapists. When we are immersed in binge watching our favorite episodes or shows, we temporarily forget our worries and stressors. Briefly, we can turn off our brains. Clients frequently tell me that they are particularly drawn to binge watching when their mind is full of worrisome thoughts.

Association
Binge watching can also be associated with other pleasurable activities. Many people cuddle with their companion animal or partner, wrap themselves in a blanket, watch from their favorite couch or in bed, text with friends, and eat favorite snacks while watching. Our brains create associations between all of these pleasurable activities, adding to the cascade of dopamine. This creates or enhances neural pathways.

Community
We may have friends and family who enjoy the same shows. Discussing episodes and storylines often creates a sense of connection, communication, and shared experience.

Ease of access
Streaming content can be easily accessed from your phone, tablet, laptop, television, anywhere. Part of the binge worthiness of our favorite shows is not having to drive anywhere to go see them, stand in lines, or deal with crowds, as well as being able to pick up where you left off, anytime. This adds to our relaxation and sense of ease while watching.

Note: According to pre-COVID stats from Netflix, 65% of Americans watch between two and six shows in a single sitting. Hulu reported between three and six shows.
(Photo credit: FFX and Hulu).

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