Why You Can’t Stop Watching That Show
by Carolyn Abel
Now that we’re fully in the holiday season, most people will choose (or have already started) a series or two to binge-watch. It can be a nice escape from the stress of school or work (and from the hellscape that is 2016!), but have you ever found yourself in the situation where you just can’t stop watching that show, even when you know it’s just a shell of its former self?
It probably stems from your brain’s addiction and reward pathways. Here’s some background information:
Addiction is a chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, and memory, with biological, psychological, social, and spiritual manifestations. People who are addicted to something are pathologically pursuing reward through their behaviors; essentially, a once innocent activity becomes habitual. This is related to the dopamine levels in the brain. For example, after taking a drug, dopamine levels drop below normal, causing you to crave more. The same happens, albeit to a lesser extent, when you finish an episode or season of television, causing a similar craving for more content.
Short term stressors in our lives (read: exam period) temporarily increase dopamine levels in the brain. Binge watching a show is a fairly effective method to release this dopamine, and probably why it is such a common phenomenon at certain times of the year.
Common TV tropes take advantage of these addictive properties, the most obvious being the cliffhanger. Addiction is about anticipation. So, when storylines are left unresolved, it’s human nature to want to see an ending, and with streaming, it’s even easier to just click on the next episode. Everyone who’s ever watched a Shonda Rhimes show has almost definitely been caught in this trope. Another trope is the use of rapid fire scenes. These make use of something called the orienting reflex, which increases our level of engagement with a scene by making it physically harder to look away. Some other tropes that humans are wired to respond to are sex, because it is critical for our survival, and violence, as it is often motivated by revenge or justice.
Watching a show now involves a whole new level of interaction with social media. It has become harder to quit watching a show, as you might feel left out of something you were once a part of. (#FOMO, am I right?)
So enjoy your holiday binge-watch, but maybe avoid the heavy content or the show that went on for nine or ten seasons. You still want to be able to get back to real life in January, right? No? Ok, fair enough. Everything in moderation, right?
To get you started, The Good Place is a great new half hour comedy, and its cast and writing are sure to distract you from America’s political nightmare!