Imagine this: Your favourite show is back and you’ve watched the first two episodes.
It’s late and you have a big day tomorrow, but surely you have time for one more …
Netflix chief executive Reed Hastings reportedly told shareholders in April that his service’s biggest competitor was sleep.
But researchers have found a compelling reason to stop binge watching and get some shut eye — you may enjoy the series more, and remember it better.
Am I a binge watcher?
Dr Jared Cooney Horvath, an expert in educational neuroscience at the University of Melbourne, said academics generally defined binge watching as consuming at least three hours of a show in one session.
“If you think about it, it’s hard to not watch three episodes of some shows, especially if they’re really good,” he told ABC Radio Melbourne‘s Lindy Burns.
He said that when he began his research he “fully believed” that those who binged on a television show would remember it better than more moderate viewers.
“They just don’t,” he said.
Memory ‘starts to tank’
Dr Horvath said binge watchers did not retain information about the show in the long term.
“You have maybe 72 hours and then your memory for everything starts to tank,” he said.
“Whereas, if you watch a show once a night or once a week … your memory for everything increases, it actually gets better.”
He said sleeping between episodes gave your brain time to consolidate the information.
“So when you come back the next day to watch something, it’s actually fresher in your mind than when you sit down and try to do it all at once.”
Dr Horvath said while researchers were unsure as to why binge watchers didn’t remember as much, his hunch was that “we can only take in so much information during a day”.
“As you’re dreaming what you’re doing is you’re reliving all of the events of that day and you’re storing those memories, so you’re sorting through that information,” he said.
“The more information you see during the day, the more you have to sort through at night, and depending on how you sleep that might not always be efficient so you start to drop stuff.”
Binge watching affects both a person’s ability to recall plot details and their capacity to recognise characters and locations.
“They’ll [only] remember that one big event in the show — such-and-such died or the building exploded.”
Implications for broadcasters, educators
The research was sparked by the practice of recording videos of university lectures for students to consume later.
Dr Horvath said some students then stopped attending classes and instead would binge watch all the lectures before exams.
Those students were at a disadvantage compared to peers who attended or watched lectures once a week, Dr Horvath said.
He said his research had interesting implications for television broadcasters and streaming companies.
“I’m sure there’s some networks that would say, ‘Cool, I don’t want you to remember because then maybe a year from now you’ll come watch it again’.”
However, promoting binge watching might see customer satisfaction decline.
“What you see is the people who watch one a night or one a week tend to enjoy the show far more than the people who binge it,” he said.
Dr Horvath will continue his research, exploring whether bingeing on mediums such as books and podcasts has the same memory-impeding effect.