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Why We're Wired to Binge-Watch TV

Complex, engrossing series affect our minds in unexpected ways.

In this age of microblogging, distracting smartphones, 140-character tweets, and compulsive multitasking, it seems a little backward that one of the top post-workday hobbies of young adults is to become completely engrossed for hours on end in the complicated storylines of Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, and House of Cards.

A new type of consumer has evolved in recent years—the love child of the Couch Potato and the Channel Surfer, raised by streaming devices and nurtured by entire seasons of shows available at the click of a remote.

For just a few dollars a months, subscribers to Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Instant Video have access to thousands of streaming movies and TV shows, all updated regularly. And with Netflix's new postplay feature, which prompts viewers to play the next episode just as the credits of the last one begin rolling, it's easier than ever to succumb to the appeal of Walter White and Frank Underwood.

The birth of the binge-watcher has been an intriguing, unexpected development in the past five years. Neuroscience, it turns out, can partially explain the phenomenon.

British psychologist Edward B. Titchener (1867–1927) might have argued that we become glued to complex, emotionally-charged stories because of our ability to recognize the feelings of others. A newly identified phenomenon at the time, Titchener coined the term empathy in 1909. In addition to identifying others' discomfort or elation, "cognitive empathy" examines how humans can also adopt others' psychological perspectives, including those of fictional characters. It's such a universal emotional state that psychological tests (through the use of puppets, pictures, and videos) have even been developed to study empathy in preschool-age children.

Neuroeconomist Paul Zak of Claremont Graduate University set out to examine the science of empathy in storytelling. He showed participants a video about a young boy with terminal cancer, seemingly joyful and completely unaware of his fate. We get the father's perspective too. Although he tries to enjoy his last months with his son, he finds it impossible to be happy.

Zak found that subjects commonly exhibited two emotions after viewing the video: distress and empathy. When a blood sample was taken from participants before and after viewing, both cortisol (a stress hormone) and oxytocin (a hormone associated with human connection and caring) levels were higher after the video. While cortisol correlated with ratings of distress, there was a strong relationship between oxytocin and empathetic feelings.

After watching the video, participants were also given the opportunity to donate money to a stranger in the laboratory, as well as to a charity that helps sick children. In both cases, the amount of cortisol and oxytocin released predicted how much people were willing to share. Zak concluded that these empathetic feelings (that we also apparently act on) are evidence of our compulsions as social beings—even when faced with a fictional narrative.

So it's clear that humans connect emotionally with stories of their kin. But what explains the bingeing? Or why, according to Netflix, did three of four viewers who streamed the first season of Breaking Bad on its platform finish all seven episodes in one session?

Psychologist Uri Hasson of Princeton University pioneered the new field of neurocinematics, the study of how TV and film interact with the brain. In a 2008 study, he and colleagues observed the brain images of participants via fMRI while showing them four video clips of: Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm; Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; Alfred Hitchcock's Bang! You're Dead; and a 10-minute, unedited, one-shot video of a Sunday morning concert in New York's Washington Square Park.

Hasson wanted to determine the intersubject correlation (ISC) across all viewers' brains to examine how similarly they'd respond while watching these four very different clips. The Washington Square Park video evoked a similar response in all viewers in only 5 percent of the cortex, while Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly came in at 18 percent and 45 percent, respectively. The Alfred Hitchcock film, however, elicited an ISC of 65 percent.

In other words, compared to the other clips, Bang! You're Dead was able to coordinate the responses of many different brain regions, resulting in simultaneous "on" and "off" responses across participants in 65 percent of the brain. Hasson concluded that the more "controlling" the clip—in other words, showing the viewer exactly what they're supposed to pay attention to—the more focused the audience.

While the one-shot park clip allows viewers to attend to anything they find interesting, Hitchcock was a master of orchestrating everything: what you're watching, what you're thinking, how you're feeling, and what you predict will come next. In similar ways, modern-day TV writers and directors engage viewers worldwide with the flash-forwards of Lost; the gruesome action of Game of Thrones; and the eerie exchanges between Breaking Bad's Gus Fring and Walter White.

In a study by Harris Interactive on behalf of Netflix released in December, 61 percent of 1,500 online respondents claimed to binge-watch Netflix regularly (defined, modestly, as watching at least two or three episodes successively every few weeks). Three-quarters of them reported having positive feelings about the behavior.

Netflix sent cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken into the homes of TV streamers to find out more. McCracken discovered that 76 percent reported bingeing as a welcome refuge from their busy lives, and nearly 8 in 10 agreed that binge-watching a TV show was more enjoyable than watching single episodes. Despite our hectic, digitally-driven lifestyles and 140-character social interactions, McCracken concluded that we're actually craving the long narratives that today's best television series can provide. Instead of dealing with our life's stresses by zoning out, we'd rather become engrossed in an entirely different (and fictional) world.

A new report shows that the average American watches more than five hours of television daily, at the same time that we've learned how sitting is slowly killing us, and that sedentary time in older age puts one at significant risk for disability.

To ensure that you're not binge-eating and binge-sitting while binge-watching, perhaps you could do what Claire Underwood did for Frank and set up a nifty little rowing machine in front of your screen. Because for the same reasons we're wired to binge-watch TV, our brains also crave a good workout.

A version of this was originally published at The Conversation UK.

Image credit: Aaron Escobar, Pete Souza, Bryan Gosline (Wikimedia Commons)

Hasson, U., O. Landesman, B. Knappmeyer, I. Vallines, N. Rubin, and D.J. Heeger. Neurocinematics: the Neuroscience of Film. Projections 2(1): 1-26 (2008).

Zak, P.J., A.A. Stanton, and S. Ahmadi. Oxytocin Increases Generosity in Humans. PLOS ONE 2(1): e1128 (2007).

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