This Is Your Brain On Binge-Watched Television

By Lisa Martinovic

Adapted from flickr/duncan c
After working so hard to create an addiction-free life, a new temptation has raised old alarms.

I don’t trust anything that I look forward to too much. And topping that list is the double-edged sword of prestige television. For over half a century, critics have railed against what we used to call the “boob tube,” usually objecting on moral or political grounds.

If they knew dopamine like I know dopamine, they could have made a stronger case.

I’m neither a Puritan nor a Luddite. I’ve thrilled to the Emmy-winning dramas of television’s new Golden Age. And like so many others, I fell victim to what TV critic James Poniewozik calls “The Suck”: “that narcotic, tidal feeling of getting drawn into a show and letting it wash over you for hours.” But after spending too many precious hours with my neo-cortex on hold, I had to reassess my priorities.

As someone who courted death in the pursuit of getting high, and then spent decades of sobriety battling everyday compulsions (food, work, and relationships), I am acutely sensitive to all things addiction. So I was uneasy when I found myself thinking (way too often), “If I just make it through this wretched day, I get to zone out on Downton Abbey.” That same hunger for relief was what drove me back in the day, when I knew that everything was going to be okay as soon as I got my hit or drink or shot. Having worked so hard to create an addiction-free life, this new temptation raised old alarms.

I am acutely sensitive to all things addiction.

When it comes to treats, I’m not so adept at living in the mythic gray area known as Moderation. An occasional cigarette? Just half a glass of wine? Unfathomable! In an all-or-nothing world, with its crisply defined boundaries, nibbling at the edges of your resolve is simply not an option. For me it’s either abstinence or . . . seizures on street corners and trips to the ER. I tried to be a controlled drinker, a casual cocaine user, and yes, even a social heroin dabbler. Failed spectacularly.

Ah, but my new seducer is more sophisticated than those lurking in the forbidden shadows of society. Because television watching has long been America’s national pastime, there’s little social opprobrium around “using” that mitigates against abuse; users have no compunction admitting to “near-erotic anticipation” (or some less florid description) of their favorite shows.

With the advent of binge-watching — the neural mainlining of pop culture — the stakes are much higher. At the margins, some psychologists and cultural Cassandras have woken up to its dangers, so you can now find posts explaining how to control your addiction.

The problem is so much bigger than that.

Every Slope Is Slippery

When confronted with the notion of addiction, people comfort themselves by pointing to the masterful storytelling, creative genius, and social relevance of television today — as if all that magically made them immune to abusing it. One writer friend of mine argued that today’s shows are the new great literature, and there’s some truth in that. Compared to the fare I grew up on (Beverly Hillbillies, anyone?), Game of Thrones is Shakespeare. But that’s beside the point. Lots of people — makers and aficionados — take craft beer very seriously. But its artisanal cred doesn’t make it any less dangerous than rot gut — if you’re an alcoholic. And so it is with me and TV.

All my adult life, I’d chosen not to own a television precisely because of my addictive propensities. I lived quite happily without a TV or VCR for over 25 years, until one fateful day a friend dangled irresistible bait. You know you can watch DVDs on your computer, right? Before you could say Carrie Bradshaw, I was hooked on boxed sets. Though I rarely watched more than two hours a day, it was my relationship with television that unnerved me. It felt uncomfortably familiar.

One Neurotransmitter To Rule Them All

In the early 1980s, when I was strung out on crack, I noticed a strange phenomenon. Sometimes, at the end of a multi-day run — depressed, devoid of drugs and dopamine, immobilized with fatigue — I’d get a call from my coke connection saying he was on his way. Instantly energized, I’d leap out of bed and bustle around the apartment preparing the paraphernalia to receive my honored guest. My symptoms, if not altogether vanished, were dramatically diminished. Where did they go?

We now know that cues themselves liberate dopamine, one of the neurotransmitters associated with reward and pleasure that makes us feel so good. My brain had learned, through repeated, reinforcing experience, that when the dealer is coming, relief is not far behind. Hence the invigorating dopamine surge. But the anticipatory high only sustained me for so long, and if I got word that my man was busted en route, my dopamine plummeted. Once again I’d be plastered to the bed, a physical and emotional void.

Thirty-odd years later, I was doing the same dance with a digital partner. When a new episode of a favorite show beckoned, I’d feel an ache in my solar plexus, then an insistent tug relieved only when the opening credits started to roll. And before I could push pause, I was back in the game. I wasted irreplaceable hours anticipating my next hit; wondering who Don Draper was going to screw next; watching meth deals go horribly awry while eating dinner in front of the computer; staying up too late after succumbing to yet another cliffhanger. I’d even turn off the phone so I could revel in media intoxication uninterrupted. The next day would find me awash in regret . . . and planning my next fix.

It’s astonishing (and a testament to the brilliance of these series) how fast I got hooked and how deeply — perhaps irrevocably — my brain was penetrated. It’s now nearly four years since I’ve seen an episode of Sex and the City. And yet, when I call it up from memory, I can hear the theme music in my head, feel myself being pulled into that cozy place, into losing myself in the lives of fictional characters. Even at this remove, the sense of emotional swaddling is very much alive in my limbic brain.

I didn’t want one more synapse colonized by the entertainment industry.

My beef is not with HBO, David Simon, or Claire Danes. They’re just doing their jobs — extremely well. My job is to be responsible for my life. Was I consciously choosing to spend a couple of hours a day mesmerized by great acting and high production values, or was I defaulting to an entrenched pattern? When you’re blissed out on pleasure you can’t always discern the point at which your act of volition mutates into one of compulsion.

Neuroscience To The Rescue

Shortly before I developed this new jones, I’d begun studying neuroplasticity, the way the brain changes itself in response to experience. It’s especially relevant for understanding how we build habits, and how habits can become addictions. Dopamine, of course, is a key player in the addiction follies.

Pleasurable stimuli triggers the release of this neurochemical which in turn reinforces the behavior that generated it. If you do a particular activity to achieve a result often enough, it will be very hard — in some instances agonizing — to get the same result through different means.

Knowing addiction from the inside out — as an addict and as a student of neuroscience — I am painfully aware when I’m marching down a road too well traveled. I knew I was training my brain to crave the psychic relief that TV delivered, watching myself — one episode at a time — build a new neural pathway with the asphalt of dopamine. Eventually, I arrived at the place where I “needed” to watch an hour or two of Deadwood or True Blood to relax and shake off the day. It might as well have been whiskey on the rocks.

I knew I was training my brain to crave the psychic relief that TV delivered.

And so, three and a half years ago, I braced for television withdrawal. I was anxious and cranky and at loose ends for a while, but once I made the decision to go cold turkey, I stuck to it. I am proud (and still somewhat amazed) that although I absolutely loved Mad Men and Breaking Bad, because their final seasons aired after I’d begun my abstinence, I haven’t seen the conclusion of either.

My commitment was rewarded in abundance. I started writing again, drawing, and making jewelry. Now, instead of a consuming someone else’s art, I am creating my own.

Hooked On Books?

Still, one can’t be productive 24/7. There are times when I want to chill. And I do, with novels, memoirs, The New Yorker. I very much look forward to the end of the day, to reading in the bathtub, being transported to other worlds. What could be wrong with that? Maybe nothing. But during the past couple of years I have puzzled over whether or not I am “using” books and magazines in much the same way I used, say, Ugly Betty. In a sense, I am. Like most people, I want to escape the pain and problems in my life for a little while — but no longer “by any means necessary.”

The addiction-sensitive part of me has made peace with pleasure reading because there is a crucial difference between it and watching television. Reading involves a deeper level of cognitive engagement; the brain has to fill in the visual and auditory blanks (that TV supplies for your convenience), imagining the fully fleshed out characters and scenes.

A recent study out of Emory University shows that “becoming engrossed in a novel enhances connectivity in the brain and improves brain function,” while the Journal of Communication reports that TV-watching preschoolers “have a weaker understanding of other people’s beliefs and desires, and reduced cognitive development.” There are countless other studies that demonstrate the deleterious effects of television, a handful of which are cited in this Scientific American article.

That said, the truth is you can get addicted to anything if you try hard enough. I once knew a guy who replaced Twinkies with carrots. Six months later he was still off the hard stuff, but his skin had taken on an orange hue from excess beta-carotene. Similarly, it takes real dedication to disrupt your life by reading too much.

Guilty Pleasure vs. Generative Pleasure

Television is our least interactive medium. It’s all stimuli, the watcher a mere recipient. Beyond following a plot, there is no effort required. Nothing stands between you and the orgasm of a thrilling dénouement. Essentially, you’re taking a shortcut through your neurological reward system — literally pushing a button (play) to get a dopamine hit.

In addition to the usual suspects like drugs and alcohol, all manner of substances and activities trigger the release of dopamine: sex, gambling, hot fudge sundaes. Some we call “guilty pleasures,” I think because secretly we know they are not earned. This is very different from the pleasure we enjoy as a result of intentional effort — exercise, making something you’re proud of, or learning a new skill. Whereas, no matter how hard I’ve worked all day, I have not achieved a slice of tiramisu or a couple of margaritas, though I can tell myself I’ve earned them.

It’s not easy being a cultural outlier. I’m up against the ultimate power couple: consumer capitalism and primal want. Their marriage of convenience has made the pursuit of instant gratification one of the defining features of the 21st century. Science confirms that we are hardwired through evolution to seek pleasure, like sugar and fat, sex and intoxicants.

Television is all stimuli, the watcher a mere recipient.

But over millennia these pleasures have intensified, and the opportunity to indulge in them has grown exponentially. The wild strawberry enjoyed by an ancient hunter-gatherer was not remotely as sweet as its modern descendant, and it would only have been available for a very short time, once a year at best. The ubiquity of porn is a more extreme example of pleasure’s availability.

Are our lives qualitatively improved by hyper-sweet fruit and diaper porn? Even if you believe the answer to be yes, at what cost? What of our capacity to appreciate subtlety, rarity, and restraint?

I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with guilty pleasures, so long as they don’t commandeer your life or interfere with other joys and responsibilities. For those who are addicts, or susceptible to addiction, it behooves us to be aware of the patterns we are creating while we’re creating them, and alert to ones that might lead us down the rabbit hole. Spoiler Alert: The road to addiction is paved with guilty pleasures.

Fortunately, there are many sources of neurochemical bliss. I find that the most deeply satisfying pleasures are those I have earned — and earned in the process of generating them. Which is to say: Working hard all day does not “earn” me the right to instant pleasure via a movie. That’s prefabricated pleasure, as contrasted with the gratification of hiking in nature or engaging my imagination as I put pen to paper. Here, effort is an integral part of the pleasure, and the process itself is rewarding.

Freedom Or Bust

Underneath all this talk of addiction lies my core motivation: I want to be as free as I can possibly be. I don’t want to need anything that I don’t literally need. As a citizen of the modern world, my baseline needs are already so many! Food, shelter, exercise, health care, reliable transportation, work, love, and community, for starters. Every need entails dependence of a sort, something that tethers us and limits our freedom.

And while I accept and in some cases delight in nurturing these essentials, others cost me time, energy, and money I’d gladly spend elsewhere. Say, making art instead of going to doctor appointments. I don’t want to accrue yet more needs, so when something extraneous like The Good Wife or chocolate truffles starts to feel like a need, I nip those neurons in the bud.

I don’t expect to see throngs of people signing up for this level of asceticism. My stance is out of step with the times, but it reflects my biases: toward autonomy over dependence, action over passivity, creation over consumption. Ultimately, it’s up to each of us to decide if the benefits of our behaviors outweigh the costs. Does your habit — be it television or anything else — expand or contract your world? Does it increase your capacities and make you more available to life’s call, or does it restrict your options, compel you to isolate? The day after a binge, do you feel enriched or remorseful?

My aim is to help those who love their shows a little too much understand they are on a continuum. It dead-ends in territory that puts reality shows to shame. Not that people wind up robbing banks because they can’t afford the next installment of Veep, but theft from other parts of our lives has become the norm.

Consider the millions of Americans who bemoan their sleep-deprived status. How many are so hooked on Homeland that they make sleep a lower priority than entertainment? If staying up too late drinking night after night was interfering with your ability to function optimally, we’d likely agree you had a problem. But because it’s premium cable, you get a pass? How many children are denied quality time with their parents, from the reading of bedtime stories to help with homework, because mom and dad are itching to catch up on House of Cards?

If the folks were out scoring drugs, we’d alert child protective services, but when they’re ensconced in front of a flatscreen TV, we don’t call them out for neglect. In terms of your relationship with yourself, what happens if something comes up that prevents your watching a much-anticipated show? If you feel anxious, you have more in common with a heroin addict than you might think.

The Price Of Pleasure

There is an orders-of-magnitude difference between the binge-watcher and the junkie. But though they differ in degrees, the desire that propels both originates in the same place (the nucleus accumbens, to be precise.) And the distinction between them continues to blur as we spend more of our lives entranced, evolving into creatures that may be irrevocably dependent on external sources of relief and pleasure.

When most of our dopamine comes from effortless pursuits like watching TV, will we be less able to achieve satisfaction from activities that require work — or will we just lose interest in them?

This phenomenon has already been observed among those who consider themselves porn addicts. By taking a shortcut to orgasm thousands of times, many men find themselves unable to perform with flesh and blood humans, for they arrive with agendas (emotional connection, perhaps) and desires (for their own pleasure) that complicate the addict’s quest.

But the most pervasive example of this shift is on public display in restaurants, bars, and other social settings packed with people who cannot tear themselves away from their phones long enough to maintain a non-virtual conversation — because what they find on screen is more compelling . . . and less risky.

Meanwhile, on the digital frontier, our priestly caste of tech wizards is relentlessly churning out new ways to stimulate the reward system without our having to work for it. Everything from Facebook to Pokemon Go is analogous to getting an instant “pick me up” from a glazed donut instead of the gradual release of glucose and fructose provided by an apple, the metabolism of which requires more energy and is genuinely nourishing.

The Dopamine Arms Race

During the early 1990s, eager to restore my health after a decade of substance abuse, I experimented with many dietary regimens. One year I went macrobiotic, a facet of which was abstaining from all sugars, even fresh fruit. I was bereft at first, but eventually my palate adjusted and I learned to incorporate seaweed into every meal.

After six months of eating nothing sweeter than sautéed onions, I decided to loosen up. I sat down at the kitchen table and very mindfully bit into a perfectly ripe Comice pear. To my astonishment, it was too sweet! I had acclimated to a much lower sweetness threshold. But guess what? Over the ensuing months, I gradually edged past my new normal and fell right back into my old comfort zone of ice cream, apple fritters, and cheesecake.

Why? For the intensity, for a bigger rush, for more dopamine. For the same reason that Playboy begat Penthouse begat Hustler. For the same reason Doritos exist. For the same reason that torture porn has become all but obligatory in our critically acclaimed TV dramas. For the same reason the dope fiend will always chase a bigger hit. When we get high from any given stimuli often enough, the high loses its potency and we develop tolerance; we need more to get to the same place.

We’re in the midst of an epic social experiment, so giddy with excitement about every new show, app, game, gadget, and platform, so gluttonous for more, faster, newer everything, that we’re not paying attention to the downsides. A world of essentially free and infinite entertainment is asking for trouble. If we don’t have to work to generate a reward, if we can get it by just flipping a switch, it becomes a near-irresistible alternative to focused effort. As we become reliant on digital input for our neuro-kicks, pathways to organic pleasures — exercise, creative expression, community involvement — will wither from disuse.

In our zeal for endless stimulation, novelty, and escape, we are, paradoxically, engineering a world in which all of life’s colors are saturated, and becoming a people with no memory of pastel.

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