How binge-watching rewires your brain?

As this deadly pandemic gets going, you cannot go out like previous days and spend every day of your lives at home. One of the things you do to fight boredom and anxiety aside from scrolling through your social media feeds is “binge-watching.” It seems like a great way to relax when you entirely dwell on your favorite television show but spending hours on the couch can actually hurt your brain.

When humans are engaged in an enjoyable activity like binge-watching, their brain produces dopamine, a neurochemical that signals the body a natural, internal reward of pleasure that reinforces you to continue engagement in that activity. Have you ever speculated why you’re tempted to let Netflix’s autoplay start the next episode so you can find out what happens in the story? When you do that, your brain produces dopamine continuously, and your body feels a drug-like high. You experience a pseudo-addiction to the show because you develop cravings for dopamine. According to Dr. Renee Carr, a clinical psychologist, ‘The neuronal pathways that cause heroin and sex addictions are the same as an addiction to binge-watching.’ Dr. Carr adds, ‘Your body does not discriminate against pleasure. It can become addicted to any activity or substance that consistently produces dopamine.’ Furthermore, when dopamine hits the mesolimbic pathway, which connects the nucleus accumbens to the brain’s frontal lobes, the theory is that dopamine becomes a feedback signal to predict rewards.

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There could be multiple side effects of binge-watching like social isolation, sleep deprivation, and unhealthy eating habits, but to offset them, here is the deal:

1- Choose a bedtime

Seven to nine hours of sleep is required for an average person every night. Before starting your favorite show, pick a bedtime and stick to it no matter what. You can set a bedtime alarm so that you don’t lose track of time and to help you stick to that decision.

2- Give precedence to exercise

Like sleep, physical activity can also be compromised because of binge-watching. According to Randall Wright, M.D., a Houston Methodist neurologist, “The brain can generate new cells and connections through a process known as neurogenesis, and exercise is key to that process.” Therefore, the suggestion is to take a short walk around your neighborhood before binge-watching, standing for five minutes during every episode, or maybe doing some small home chores that can help keep your body and brain active.

3- Phone a friend

While you are engaged in enjoying your favorite show and finding it’s a good way to reduce stress, spending hours with television as a company is not suitable for your mental health. Take some time out to reply to WhatsApp messages or make a call to re-wire your brain for some time. COVID-19 though have isolated us physically but socializing via cellphone is still in fashion.

4- Smart snacking

Avoid unhealthy snacks and opt for something with more nutritional values during binge-watch. Hummus and vegetables, nuts, and fruits are great if you crave something to eat while binge-watching.

5- Stress reliever

Binge-watching itself is not bad, but everything becomes a problem when it exceeded the limit. Although it provides you a temporary escape from your daily lives but watching the fourth or fifth episode in a row can replace healthy activities. Please don’t overdo it.  

Incorporating the above points into your binge-watching routine, you can avoid the side effects and still enjoy the occasional binge-watching without hurting your brain. Be a responsible binge-watcher and watch out for your health while enjoying the films and series you love. Happy watching!


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Tabinda Salman is a science writer and Ph.D. candidate in Neuroscience at the University of Karachi, Pakistan, and National Institutes of Health, United States, studying the signaling mechanism involved in psychostimulant-induced addiction and memory. She is also an office-bearer of the National Academy of Young Scientists Pakistan.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @SalmanTabinda
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