Watching TV


Blogging and tweeting using multiple devices and smartphones anywhere and everywhere, from trains to cafes, never before have we been such compulsive multitaskers. It seems a touch backward, then, that one in all our top post-workday hobbies is enjoying the complex storylines of TV series like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad.

A new kind of consumer has evolved in recent years — the illegitimate child of the layabout and therefore the Channel Surfer — who has been raised on streaming devices and nurtured by entire seasons of shows available at the clicking of a distance.

For just a tiny low payment every month, subscribers to Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Instant Video have access to thousands of streaming movies and television shows that are updated and added to regularly. And with Netflix’s new post-play feature, which prompts viewers to play the subsequent episode even as the credits of the last one begin rolling, it’s easier than ever to succumb to the captivating lure of Breaking Bad cooks Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, whose signature dish of crystal meth notched up 10.3 million viewers in one concluding episode.

What has been an intriguing, unexpected development of the past five years is the birth of the “binge-watcher.”

High on empathy

British psychologist Edward B Titchener, active at the turn of the 20th century, might argue that we become glued to complex, emotionally-charged stories thanks to our ability to acknowledge the sentiments of others. Titchener coined the term “empathy” in 1909 which is a newly identified phenomenon at the time. Additionally to identifying others’ discomfort or elation, this branch of “cognitive empathy” examines how humans may adopt others’ psychological perspectives, including those of fictional characters. Psychological tests (through the utilization of puppets, pictures, and videos) have even been developed to check empathy in preschool-aged children.

Neuro-economist Paul Zak of Claremont Graduate University in California kicked off to look at the science of empathy in storytelling. He showed participants a video of a few young boys with terminal cancer, who is carefree and completely unaware of his fate. We get the father’s perspective, too — although he tries to enjoy his final months along with his son, he finds it impossible to be happy.

Zak found that after viewing the video: distress and empathy, subjects commonly elicited two emotions. When a blood sample was taken from participants before and after viewing, both cortisol (a stress hormone) and oxytocin (a hormone related to human connection and caring) levels were higher after the video. While cortisol was correlated with ratings of distress, there was a robust relationship between oxytocin and empathetic feelings.

After watching the video, participants were also given the chance to donate money to a stranger within the laboratory, additionally as a charity that helps sick children. In both cases, the quantity of cortisol and oxytocin released predicted what proportion people were willing to share. The evidence of our compulsions as social beings — even when faced with a fictional story are these empathetic feelings (that we also, apparently, act on) that Zak concluded.

So with stories of their kin, it’s clear that humans connect emotionally. But what explains the binge? Or why, in step with Netflix, did three out of 4 members who streamed the primary season of Breaking Bad finish all seven episodes in one session?


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TV and film meet the brain

During a 2008 study, Psychologist Uri Hasson of Princeton and colleagues showed participants four clips while they’d their brain imaged via fMRI (an imaging technique that measures changes to blood flow within the brain).

Hasson wanted to see the inter-subject correlation (ISC) across all viewers’ brains to look at how similarly they’d respond while watching these four very different clips. The Washington Square Park video evoked the same response all told viewers in a mere 5 percent of the cortex, while Curb Your Enthusiasm and therefore the Good, The Bad, and The Ugly came in at 18 percent and 45 percent, respectively. Elicited an ISC of 65 percent was the Hitchcock film.

In other words, leading to simultaneous “on” and “off” responses across all participants, 65 percent of the time compared to the opposite films, Bang! You’re Dead was able to coordinate the responses of the many different brain regions. The more focused the audience, the more “controlling” the clip — those who showed the viewer exactly what they’re imagined to listen to, as Hasson concluded.

Based on a survey commissioned by Netflix in December, 61 percent of 1,500 online respondents claimed to binge-watch Netflix regularly (defined, modestly, as watching a minimum of two or three episodes successively every few weeks). Three-quarters reported having positive feelings in doing this.

The company then sent cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken into the homes of TV streamers with their abonnement IPTV (which literally means IPTV subscription) to search out out why. McCracken reported that 76 percent said binging was a welcome refuge from their busy lives, and nearly eight in 10 people said binge-watching a program made it more enjoyable than watching single episodes. McCracken concludes that we’re actually craving the long narratives that today’s good television can provide, despite our hectic, digitally-driven lifestyles and 140-character social interactions. Rather than managing the day’s stresses by zoning out, we’d rather become engrossed in a completely different (and fictional) world.