Netflix binge watching is re-wiring our brains

Netflix is changing the fabric of television, society… and maybe even our brains.

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Popular political drama and Netflix original House of Cards recently aired its third season—all at once.

Flying in the face of television convention, the model for Netflix-original shows is to set a date to release an entire season, and leave audiences to do what they will. What they will often do is grab a bag of chips, sit down and dig in for the long haul.

Netflix is changing the fabric of television, society… and maybe even our brains.

Science writer and brain-enthusiast David DiSalvo wrote a piece last year about the social and neurochemical effects of binge-watching Netflix.

Consider the age-old television standard of weekly episodes; Netflix interrupts what DiSalvo calls “the format to exercise delayed gratification.” He likens this to training hungry lab rats to hold off on pouncing on a treat through disincentives.

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“In a sense, that’s what the Sunday night entertainment dosing model is for humans: delayed gratification linked to quality,” he says. “We wait for the best shows on our weekly docket because we’ve come to believe that they are worth waiting for. An hour of well-written, well-acted, commercial-free entertainment is our weekly prize, and we’ve been trained to steady our appetite until it arrives.”

This anticipation works as a neurochemical boost, “a sort of naturally occurring antidepressant,” and understanding how that works is key to understanding the importance of the battle between Netflix and television.

There’s a myth about this “pleasure chemical” in the brain called dopamine, but that’s not quite accurate. Dopamine is a versatile little neurotransmitter with many functions, depending on what part of the brain it’s interacting with.

When it hits the mesolimbic pathway, which connects the nucleus accumbens to the frontal lobes, the theory is that dopamine becomes a feedback signal to predict rewards.

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However, it’s been shown that the reward isn’t what triggers the dopamine reaction, but the anticipation of the reward. “Studies on roulette players have recorded as much activity in the nucleus accumbens when punters lose money with a miserable near-miss as when they have an enjoyable win,” writes The Guardian. “In this case, dopamine seems not to be signaling pleasure but indicating how close you got to the reward and encouraging another attempt. This works well when success depends on skill but falsely compels us in games of chance.”

There’s a social element that is all part of this as well. With weekly television shows, everyone is waiting in tortured eagerness for the shows they really love — and we draw a certain amount of pleasure from the anticipation. We all experience the shows at roughly the same time, mostly in sync, then we all talk about them after. Netflix and binge watching means audiences are watching shows in whenever is convenient for them, at different, fragmented times.

Consider this next time you’re thinking of binge-watching on Netflix… not that it’ll stop you…