We love binge-watching television shows as much as the next person – Mad Men, House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Narcos, Breaking Bad, you name it, we’ve watched at least three episodes of it in a row.
But our daily binge conversations have got us wondering - what exactly is it about these shows and the rise of streaming services that has us watching entire seasons in one sitting? Binge-watching is a relatively recent phenomenon, after all, so is there any science behind why we do it?
A little light research and we’ve found that actually, yes, neuroscience provides a partial explanation, as does writing style. Psychology Today reports that some of our bingeing complusion comes down to empathy - we humans become glued to complex, emotionally-charged stories because of our ability to recognise the feelings of others and take on their psychological perspectives.
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.
Subjects commonly exhibited two emotions after viewing the video: distress and empathy, with blood samples showing increased levels of both cortisol (a stress hormone) and oxytocin (a hormone associated with human connection and caring). Zak concluded that these empathetic feelings are evidence of our compulsions as social beings - even when faced with a fictional narrative.
So we relate to the people in the stories we watch. Seems fairly obvious. But why do we binge, watching episode after episode even when we know we should probably be in bed?
In a much-referenced 2008 study, Psychologist Uri Hasson of Princeton University 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 they'd respond while watching these four different clips. The Washington Square Park video evoked a similar response in all viewers in only 5 per cent of the cortex, while Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly came in at 18 per cent and 45 per cent, respectively. The Alfred Hitchcock film, however, elicited an ISC of 65 per cent.
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 per cent 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.
“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,” Psychology Today reports. “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.”
So today’s TV writers are more controlling, which leads to bingeing. But there’s actually more to it than that, even. Cast your mind back a couple of decades to the kind of shows that were popular. No doubt Friends and The Simpsons spring to mind. These shows had very few long-running story arcs, each episode neatly wrapping itself up, meaning you could check in and out of a series and still follow what was going on. There is no need to see every episode of The Simpsons, when each episode essentially hits restart upon completion.
Now think about the plots and storylines in your favourite shows to binge-watch. Their narratives require sustained, sequential viewing, each episode building on the last. Miss one or two and no doubt you’d be completely confused as to what was happening.
“As bingeing becomes possible and commonplace, it’s only natural that shows should start to take it into account,” D.B. Weiss, a Game of Thrones writer, told Romano.
The result is a new golden era of television that, like pageturner novels, make us desperate to see what happens next.
“It’s like the people who make potato chips,” Carlton Cuse, a writer from Lost a forerunner of today’s must-watch TV, told Romano. “They know how to put the right chemicals in there to make you want to eat the next potato chip. Our goal is to make you want to watch that next episode.”
Writers ratchet up the action, intrigue and plot twists, and it works, as you’ve probably realised, bleary-eyed at 2.37am when you finally see Frank Underwood take the presidency.
So what’s next in television? The steady rise of 360 degree film and immersive, virtual reality experiences has the potential to change things again. After all, you can’t get much more invested than sitting next to Mr Robot’s Elliot Alderson in his lounge as the action unfolds around you. But will that be as addictive? Guess we’ll just have to stay tuned...