This article appeared in Wake Forest University’s Old Gold and Black Newspaper.
After an exhausting day of facing the hardships and monotony of reality, from doing laundry to going to class, there is no escape quite like Netflix. Or Hulu. Or Amazon Video. Or HBOGo. No matter which online streaming outlet you do end up choosing, there is a seemingly unlimited bank of different worlds of which to immerse yourself. Without leaving the cramped yet cozy twin bed in your dorm room, you can laugh along with the cast of The Office as Jim puts Dwight’s stapler in Jell-o or gasp as the characters you love to hate make their claim on the Seven Kingdoms in Game of Thrones. At some point during your marathon, even your computer is concerned for your mental and physical well-being as it asks the question: “are you still there?”
“Binge-watching” is defined as watching multiple episodes of a television show in rapid succession. The term was even coined “Word of the Year” in 2015 by Collins Dictionary because of its increasing relevance in society. Online streaming sites, such as Netflix, almost make it too easy to watch an entire season of a show without even getting up to cook dinner or interact with another human being.
“Netflix has pioneered audience choice in programming and has helped free consumers from the limitations of linear television,” said Netflix’s Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos.
With the ease and availability of inexhaustible television options accomplished, some may still wonder: why is binge-watching so addictive? Underlying the entertainment values of cinema and television are a host of biological and psychological mechanisms that explain why it is so easy to lose yourself in a deep, dark hole of sitcoms and dramatic-thrillers.
The field of study that investigates how our brains react to film and television is known as “neurocinematics.” At a purely chemical level, completing a television series is similar to the completion of a task so your brain is flooded with a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which is associated with feelings of accomplishment.
Even the computer screen you are watching on triggers a change in your brain’s chemistry, triggering a release of “serotonin,” which is known to keep your body awake and correlates with addictive tendencies.
With such a lucrative and growing television industry, many psychologists are tackling the factors behind binge-watching to crack the code of what makes a show more habit-forming.
As you settle in to watch another episode of The Walking Dead, your brain processing systems are shifting from the left hemisphere, the more logical side of the brain, to the right hemisphere, which controls emotional responses. This emotional half of your brain floods the body with endorphins, which is why people feel relaxed as soon as they start watching a show.
Over the course of your show, a variety of dramatic battles, emotional breakdowns and unexpected movements will take over your screen. This hodgepodge of action will stimulate something called the “orienting response” in your brain, which is an innate biological mechanism that focuses your attention to sudden sounds and movements that could threaten you. Along with this response, physiological events occur in the body, like the slowing of your heart and dilation of blood vessels to the brain.
The film and media industry has evolved to satisfy the needs of modern-day binge-watchers, especially with the advent of serialized television. Writers and directors no longer need to contain entire story lines within the parameters of one 30-minute episode, but can now span critical plot points throughout the whole series. This strategy forces viewers to watch more than just one episode and dedicate the time to a series so that you do not forget anything important.
Before clicking that “Watch Next Episode” button at the bottom of your Netflix screen, just know that there is a disguised biological reason why.
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