It’s happened to the best of us, we sit in front of the TV on a Sunday afternoon with the honest intention of only watching one or two episodes of that cool new Netflix show. After that, we earnestly promise ourselves, we will get lots of other, much more productive things done. Flash forward to 16 hours later, you’re still on your couch, wiping tears from your eyes, as the credits scroll on the final episode of that same new series. You look around you, aghast at the empty crisp packets, sweet wrappers, and empty mugs that sit in idle judgement. You’ve lost an entire day to Netflix. But what exactly is happening to our neurotransmitters when we binge watch something?
The First Stages Of Binging
As soon as you switch on your TV, what ever room you are in will be filled with light and sound. When you sit down to watch any show, no two moments will be exactly the same. Scenes change rapidly from one second to the next. Your brain recognises this as continually altering audiovisual stimuli. A function within the brain known as ‘the orienting response’, means that our brains are programmed to automatically take notice of any new stimulus within our immediate environment. So, essentially, when we watch TV, our brains are in a constant state of arousal. This enables us to watch TV for long periods, without the brain ever tiring or getting bored
By The End Of Episode One
Many studies have shown that by the time you reach the end of the first episode of a show, all brain activity has shifted from the left hemisphere of the brain to the right. In other words, you have switched from logic to emotion. This switch is coincided with the release of endorphins. This raises the serotonin levels in your brain and boosts your mood and overall sense of well-being. An increased level of serotonin is the hallmark of all addictive, habit-forming behaviour. Endorphins are also known to induce a relaxation state. The heart rate slows, breathing regulates and brain activity slows right down. This is sometimes referred to by scientists as your ‘reptilian brain’, where you are reduced to the most basic of cognitive function and awareness. This is known as ‘automatic attention’: everything is washing over you in an endorphin fueled haze. The literal meaning of ‘Netflix and chill’
After A Few Hours
After a number of hours fixed in front of a TV screen, we eventually move from the automatic attention phase to whats known as the ‘controlled attention’ phase. During this phase your brain becomes slightly more active. It occurs most frequently when we have been watching the same show for a number of hours. It involves the connections our brain makes with characters and situations we see on screen. Very engrossing scenes or characters we feel very strongly about will trigger this phase. Cognitive response happens in perpetuity, and these two neural states are fluctuating constants. While this fluctuation is happening, the ever changing content of what we are watching is lighting up the brain’s synapses and triggering emotional responses. This is why, for example, we feel genuine sadness if our favourite character is going through an onscreen trauma.
When you finally get around to turning off the the TV, or laptop, or what ever device you use to watch, you might find that you are tired and irritable. This is because, like any addictive substance, once you stop taking it, your endorphin levels drop. You then experience an emotional and physical crash. You can feel exhausted, experience low levels of energy and motivation, and even feel slightly depressed. The residual feelings you had at the end of what ever the last thing you watched was can linger. This could mean lingering warm and fuzzy feelings after watching something like Queer Eye. But, it could also mean lingering feelings of violence and aggression, if the last thing you watched was something like El Chapo!
Always Binge Responsibly
The best way to avoid any of the negative effects of binge watching is to stick to a TV time limit. This is easier said than done, especially when each episode ends on a cliff hanger, but setting timers or alarms is a good way to ween yourself off your Netflix addiction. Also make sure that you are allocating enough time to all of your other interests too. If you don’t already have other hobbies, take up a new one. Spread your spare time evenly between all of your activities. That way you can maintain a healthy equilibrium between active and non active past times. So remember, folks, it’s fun to watch, but try to do it in moderation!