How Binge-Watching Ruins Your Memory

A Tale of Binge-Watching and You

After years of saying ‘I don’t need it’ or ‘it will waste my time,’ I finally caved last year and started using Netflix. My friend decided to celebrate the occasion by trying to hook me on the show, You. We huddled on her couch and watched the first two episodes together. Afterwards, she left it up to me to finish the season. However, like I tend to do with many things, I put it off. Over a month passed before I finally said decided to finish the show. I sat down the following Saturday afternoon to begin episode three and came to my senses hours later when I realized I had finished the entire series. I had been so eager to feel the rush of the story and not be left on cliffhangers that I gave up my entire afternoon to gain some closure. While part of me felt a little empty inside due to forking over so much continuous time to the show, I did actually enjoy its contents and was eager to discuss it with my friend. However, I was not able to see her until 2 weeks later. When this chance finally arose for me to devour every detail of the show and its story, I suddenly started drawing up blanks. I could remember those first two episodes fairly well, but when it came to the nine episodes I watched in the same day, I could really only remember the ending and a few select events in detail. Everything else blurred together. He did what in which episode? Wait, did she actually do that? My memory was foggy and nothing stood out clearly but those first two episodes. Why did I remember those so well even though it had been well over a month since I had seen them and yet all the more recent episodes I watched were already well-faded in my memories? Besides just wasting my time, did binge-watching have some unforeseen consequences on me?

The answer is yes. A recent study has linked binge-watching to the reduction of long-term memories of basic details related to watched shows (Hattie, Horto, Horvath & Lodge, 2017). When compared to normal television viewers who tend to watch one new episode per week, binge-watchers scored lower on basic assessments regarding common details of specific episodes and characters of the shows they’ve seen. Why though does binge-watching have this effect on individuals? The science behind this is connected with memory consolidation and a little phenomenon called the temporal distinctiveness theory.

Memory Consolidation and Your Brain

Memory consolidation refers to the process of converting a temporary memory into a long-lasting one. For a memory to become permanent, the memory must be transported from the hippocampus (the part of the brain related to short-term gains and instinct) to the neocortex (part of the brain connected to rational thought/deeper thinking)(Squire, Genzel, Wixted & Morris, 2015).During this transfer, the long-term memory is established by increasing the complexity, distribution, and connectivity of the neocortex with respect to the other parts of the brain. Without this transfer and shifts in the neocortex, the initial memory becomes lost to the person within a short period of time. 

A couple of different factors can influence how well someone can consolidate a memory. For example, the amount of prior knowledge one has on a topic can influence the strength of one’s ability to make these long-term memories. Another factor that affects this process of consolidation is time, and this time factor can be explained by the temporal distinctness theory.

Temporal Distinctiveness Theory: The Gap Between Memories

Temporal distinctiveness theory essentially states that by increasing the time gap between solidifying new long-term memories, you can better recall them more distinctly at a later time (Cowan, 2008). When a single item/event has been given time to be isolated by itself, then that memory can be transferred into the neocortex as a much more distinct and identifiable memory versus if multiple consecutive memories are trying to be stored in the neocortex at once. This “downtime” for memories to be installed into the neocortex is called neutral memory consolidation (Brown, Ecker & Lewandowsky, 2014). During neutral consolidation, the brain is either doing low mental activities or sleep, giving it a chance to successfully transfer the memories from the hippocampus to the neocortex. When I watched the first two episodes of You and then gave myself time to absorb what occurred in those episodes, I was able to better create distinct long-term memories from those experiences and recall more specific details from the show. However, when I binged-watched the other nine episodes, I did not give myself time between each episode to consolidate my memories, which is why all of my memories regarding those episodes (barring the very end) were foggy and jumbled together. Binge-watching my show, while enjoyable at the time, stripped me away from my ability to better remember what happened in it in the future. 

So Netflix or TV?

We all hate that feeling of watching a captivating show on TV and then being forced to wait a week or month for its conclusion. It feels so rewarding to just get that immediate answer to a question without being forced to suffer and mull over all the possibilities of what’s going to happen to your favorite character. However, for this quick satisfaction, we relinquish part of our ability to better remember the content that we witness. Binge-watching does not give you brain the chance to transfer that event into long-term memory. Though, at the end of the day, it is still up to you to decide your viewing experience. Which part of the trade-off will you accept: binge-watching’s instantaneous enjoyment but long-term haziness, or TV’s long-lasting remembrance but painful wait time? I’ve already decided my choice for the next series on my Netflix list: Bojack Horseman season 6. I’ll be taking it one episode at a time, so I can make distinct memories to stay with me well after I finish the show. What about you?  

 

Citations

  • Brown, G. D. A., Ecker, U. K. H. & Lewandowsky, S. (2014). Memory Without Consolidation: Temporal Distinctiveness Explains Retroactive Interference. Cognitive Science. Volume 39. Issue 7. https://doi.org/10.1111/cogs.12214 
  • Cowan N. (2008). What are the differences between long-term, short-term, and working memory?. Progress in brain research, 169, 323–338. doi:10.1016/S0079-6123(07)00020-9
  • Hattie, J.A.C., Horto, A. J., Horvath, J.C., & Lodge, J. M. (2017). The impact of binge-watching on memory and perceived comprehension. First Monday. Volume 22. Number 9. https://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/7729/6532 
  • Squire, L. R., Genzel, L., Wixted, J. T., & Morris, R. G. (2015). Memory consolidation. Cold Spring Harbor perspectives in biology, 7(8), a021766. doi:10.1101/cshperspect.a021766