KUT Host Art Markman: The Neuroscience Behind Binge-Watching

Television is a central focus of modern life. Not only do people spend their days with their faces buried in screens, but they unwind by finding something to watch. Over the past 50 years, technology has changed the way we consume TV in ways that influence both the way we think about TV as well as the social interactions we have around it.

When I was a kid in the 1970s, there were three major TV networks.  You watched a show when it was on, or you missed it altogether.  Growing up in a house in which I was not allowed to watch TV after dinner, I missed out on a lot of playground conversations about The Six Million Dollar Man or Emergency, because there was no way to catch up on what had aired the night before.

Now, of course, everything has changed.  Between streaming services and DVRs, people are able to watch programs on their own schedule.  Entire seasons of TV shows are often dropped all at once, so that people can choose their own pace for watching.

These days, many people binge-watch shows. The impulse to consume an entire season in a few days makes sense. A gripping TV series is set up to encourage people to tune back in. And now you don’t need to wait a week for the next episode to come out.

As it turns out, it is hard to remember much about a series you binge watch. That is because your brain acts a bit like a library.  Libraries try to predict what books are likely to be checked out, so that they can make sure they have enough copies of books that are going to be popular.  Your brain tries to predict what memories you are going to need to understand what is happening in your world.  The brain makes sure to learn information that you are likely to need.

Information that you encounter often over a long period of time is better remembered than information you only use for a short period of time.  That is why students who cram for a test the night before may remember some of the material for the test itself, but they will forget it after a couple of weeks have gone by.

Binge-watching is the TV equivalent of cramming for an exam. You learn the names of characters and remember their relationships and events long enough to understand what happened in the show. After that, though, your brain assumes the information is disposable. That is why people who binge watch season one of a show may find themselves having to review what they saw before season two comes out.  Your memory for a show that you watch over an extended period of time will be better than your memory for a show you binge.

The modern TV environment also complicates our ability to talk about what we have seen.  One problem is that effective communication relies on common ground. You need to know what your conversation partner knows in order to talk about anything. That is why it is easier to give driving directions to someone who lives in the same town as you than to someone just visiting.

When I was a kid, it was easy to establish common ground. The day after an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man, it was pretty safe to assume that most of the class had seen it. Now, though, just establishing common ground requires a whole conversation. Have you seen Daredevil?  What season are you on? Well, how far into season 2 have you gotten? Did you get to the part where … ?

Because the viewing audience is so fragmented, it also affects the kinds of cultural references you can use in conversation. So many people watched miniseries like Roots that you could safely assume people would know some details about it in ordinary conversation. These days, you can’t assume people will know much more about any show beyond the name. Indeed, even conversations within a family are hard to manage, because everyone has their own screen to watch whatever they want at their own pace.

Ultimately, the incredible variety of TV programs is a blessing and a curse.


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