Binge watching. We all do it, but what is it doing to our brains? We put the tough questions to psychologist and blogger Dr Joe Guse…

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When was the last time you watched just one episode of Game of Thrones, Orange is the New Black or Stranger Things per sitting? Was it about the same time you had just one biscuit with your cup of tea?

It’s ok, us too. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. To mark World Television Day today, we’ve been chatting to American comedian turned clinical psychologist and blogger Dr Joe Guse about TV binging, why we do it, and whether it’s actually healthy to settle in for yet another episode of The Crown. But first, a little bit about how he went from comedy to counselling…

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Dr Guse is a former comedian, but he made the seemingly odd transition to psychology after working as an entertainer in nursing homes – where he discovered that laughter truly is the best medicine.

He now holds two Master’s degrees in Human Development and Counselling Psychology along with a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology, and has written no fewer than 17 books relating to the integration of laughter into his work. He also writes a pretty great blog called The Healing Power of Laughter, and has recently developed a bit of a soft spot for the Queen.

So, Dr Guse, why do we binge watch?

“Binge watching is such a new phenomenon,” he says. “A generation ago, waiting each week for a new episode was the norm, and that goes back to our grandparents’ generation who listened to serials on the radio, and who were often left on a ‘cliffhanger’ from week to week. This built tension, hooked the listener and kept them coming back.

“Now, we no longer want or need to wait. Our phones and tablets, even our watches, deliver information to us constantly. The 24-hour news cycle means things change very quickly. Binge watching lets us pack the whole emotional experience of a series into a single day. We get hooked, invest in the characters, laugh, cry and then promptly say goodbye.”

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Sounds exhausting! So why exactly do we do it? Dr Guse says binge watching triggers a kind of addictive behaviour in the brain:

“We watch, we crave resolution and the mechanism is right there to achieve that resolution, so we keep watching. We get emotionally invested in the characters. There’s a whole online niche dedicated to reaction videos of huge moments in our favourite shows such as the ‘Red Wedding’ in Games of Thrones.”

In fact, a One Poll poll* of 2,000 UK adults earlier this year revealed nearly a third would consider binge-watching as one of their main hobbies.

What makes one series more addictive than another?

Earlier in the year, Netflix released its guide to the most binge-worthy genres*. Unsurprisingly, thrillers like Breaking Bad and The Fall were most likely to keep viewers pushing play, while irreverent comedies like BoJack Horseman and complex political dramas like House of Cards tended to be viewed over longer periods. Dr Guse attributes the ‘bingeability’ of a series to “emotional identification and quality of storytelling.”

“Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad are both set in worlds completely different to the ones most of us inhabit, and yet we develop strong connections to the characters – even the amoral characters. That’s where the most interesting hooks come from, I suspect. Why do we root for a Walter White or Jamie Lannister when they continue to do horrible things? It’s a fascinating evolution in television that has become really common. How much will we take from our favourite characters while continuing to root for them?”

As a contrast, Dr Guse is currently watching The Crown, and says it’s the Queen’s vulnerability and humanness that’s really piqued his interest.

“I’m an American living in New Zealand – I’ve had virtually no interest in the royal family in my life. And yet… I’m hooked!”

Can we really take in a whole series in one go?

“We get distracted or need a break,” says Dr Guse, explaining that the human attention span can’t really hold information for that long. “We often put our favourite series on just to keep us company, so the characters become like family and friends. But sometimes we ignore them too. There’s something very familiar about that. I know from personal experience I never get everything from a show on the first time through. There are just too many ways to get distracted.”

Does binge watching impact our relationships?

This is a bit of a funny one. Dr Guse says binge watching has a fascinating effect where it disconnects us from others due to the sheer amount of time it takes up, while also ensuring we’re able to participate in the latest ‘water cooler’ conversations.

“There’s a kind of ‘fear of missing out’ when you’re not caught up on the big shows everyone is talking about,” he explains. “You fall behind on social media and miss the inside jokes, and yet binge watching is often a solo activity. It’s an interesting paradox.”

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Finally, do we need to hit pause on back-to-back viewing?

Like all good things in life, Dr Guse believes the best approach is ‘moderation’.

“Binge watching has become the new movie marathon, except now it’s all right there in your living room. If it is beginning to affect your daily activities and functions, then it has become a problem – and of course prolonged sitting and staring at a screen will have some negative health consequences. There does have to be an element of moderation there. However, I also think shows can and have become the new book clubs.

“Personally, my watching has inspired me to look up a tonne of stuff about the Queen, Winston Churchill and the other major players in The Crown. Maybe if we make it a learning experience we can even make it kind of productive.”

So there you have it: not just entertaining but potentially educational? We’ll take it. Now, if you’ll excuse us, we just have a few more episodes of Gilmore Girls to get through. Call it anthropology…

Seeking inspiration for your next must-watch series? Access hours of binge-worthy entertainment on NOW TV when you sign up to one of our Red Value Bundles.

Sources:
*One Poll poll http://www.onepoll.com/binge-watching/
*Netflix guide https://media.netflix.com/en/press-releases/netflix-binge-new-binge-scale-reveals-tv-series-we-devour-and-those-we-savor-1