Goldilocks and Dopamine
Drug users know what desensitisation is.
Let me explain. “Homeostasis” is a cornerstone of all biological organisms. A simple way to think of it is the story of Goldilocks. For life to thrive, it needs things to stay at just the right level. Not too hot, not too cold. So there are thousands of complex yet elegant systems in place in every one of us to do exactly that. Sweating is one of them actually. When you start to get too hot, you sweat, and the heat lost through evaporation helps keep you at the optimal temperature.
There is a similar system in the brain to ensure your levels of neurotransmitters are appropriate. You’ve heard of dopamine – the reward neurotransmitter. It’s the one that you feel when something good happens. The one you enjoy and makes you want to repeat the behaviour to get that feeling again.
Now, there’s a subtlety at play here. Rather than trying to keep the amount of dopamine the same, the system actually wants to try to keep the strength of the effect of the dopamine the same. The strength of the effect can be simplified as:
Dopamine Amount x Density of Receptors = Strength of Effect
So, the average person is going about their daily life, and the normal good things – your favourite bagel for breakfast, a nice message from a friend you haven’t seen for a while, you beat your best time at sudoku – give you “normal” hits of dopamine, and the brain matches that with the right number of receptors for that amount of dopamine so that you get an effect strength in the normal window.
But many illicit drugs work by chemically forcing your brain to release an abnormally large amount of dopamine. And a huge amount of dopamine x normal receptor density = huge effect. This is the drug high.
But, of course, there is a consequence. The brain’s homeostatic mechanism kicks in, recognising an abnormally large effect has happened. Since the amount of dopamine released was so high, the only way to keep the effect size in the ‘normal’ window is to change the other part of the equation: the receptor density. So the brain reduces the number of dopamine receptors. And the next time the drug user has a hit, the same amount of drug, which releases the same amount of dopamine as before, results in less of a high, because there are fewer receptors. And so they take more of the drug to try to achieve the same huge high they felt the first time. This is desensitisation.
Binge-watching will end up with you cancelling your subscription
So what does this all have to do with Netflix and binge-watching??
When you watch a great show and you get to the end, that excited, happy, “I-want-to-watch-the-next-one” feeling is dopamine released in your brain. There are other things going on too: a well written story arc with an episode ending on a cliff-hanger makes you want to know what happens next, etc. But fundamentally, you’re feeling the effects of dopamine. So you watch the next episode. And the next. And the next. And over the course of an evening, what was originally a ‘normal’ level of dopamine released by one episode becomes an abnormally large level of dopamine in your brain, and Goldilocks kicks in.
And this is where it goes wrong. Netflix think that by letting you watch all the episodes, they’ll keep you using their service. And for a while, you do. You get to the end of the box-set, and you start looking for the next one. You find the one your friends told you about, and you binge that. But here’s the thing. Because of the unusually high amount of dopamine released in your brain by that last box-set, and the Goldilocks mechanism, your brain reduced the number of dopamine receptors to try to normalise the effect of the large dopamine dose.
So now, even though the new box-set is just as good as all your friends said, and objectively as good as the last one you watched, because of the smaller number of dopamine receptors, the second box-set is a bit more “meh”. So you look for another, and another, until you’re aimlessly scrolling through Netflix like an addict listlessly scratching around for their next hit.
Netflix has won, right? You’re spending more and more time on their service!
Wrong. Because you’re not an addict. So, after a while, you get bored of searching for, and not finding, anything “really good”, and you close Netflix and go on to your social media, or eat some food, or whatever. And over time, because Netflix keeps trying to make shows that give you more dopamine, and sometimes they get close to that first great box-set you watched – but not quite – you just start thinking that Netflix isn’t really all that great. Because there’s loads of stuff to watch, but you’ve watched everything that interests you, and nothing else ever quite lives up to its promise any more. And so you start to consider cancelling your subscription. And then, eventually, you do.
And the more Netflix tries to make great shows that give you more dopamine so that you keep coming back, the more you get desensitised, and the more likely you are to eventually cancel.
Sometimes the old ways are better
When I grew up, there was no streaming. And TV only had 4 channels. Series aired an episode once per week. I used to spend all week looking forward to the next episode, and when it was over, I had to wait another week for the next one. In the meantime, I didn’t get to search a catalogue to find something else to watch while I was waiting. Whatever was on, was on. If I wasn’t interested in it, I had to go and find something else to do.
This was great for my brain. It forced me to broaden the range of things I did. It made me practice being creative by inventing things to do. And, even when I got a big hit of dopamine from my favourite show, and my brain responded by reducing the number of receptors, I then had a week for things to normalise: Goldilocks goes in both directions, so if your brain isn’t getting much of an effect from the amounts of dopamine being released by your everyday activities, it will increase the amount of receptors accordingly, to get the effect back in the normal range.
And then the next episode would come round, and I’d get my hit of my favourite show, and the cycle would repeat. I didn’t get bored of the show. I watched for years like this. And I loved every episode so much because I had to wait for each one, with my anticipation growing day by day.
The unintended consequence you should care about
So here’s the thing. Almost everything that you want, almost everything that you do, almost everything that you enjoy, involves the effect of dopamine in your brain. And, as I’ve explained above, when you binge-watch, you release an abnormally large amount of dopamine. Nature’s response, to try to keep you in the Goldilocks zone, is to reduce the number of dopamine receptors in your brain. And with a smaller number of receptors, everything else you do or enjoy doesn’t feel as good as it used to. Food isn’t as tasty, things you buy aren’t as exciting, rewards don’t feel as great.
You may be thinking this is nuts, but really think about it. It might not be a night and day difference. It’s just little by little by little. But the mechanism is the mechanism. The machine works the way it’s meant to. You’re hard-wired that way by millions of years of evolution. Binge-watching makes you enjoy your whole life less. There’s no escaping it.
So what should you do? It’s simple. When you get to the end of the episode, don’t let the next one start. Turn it off. Go and do something else. And wait – a day, a week – before you watch the next episode. Better yet, make watching the episode a reward for doing something else you don’t enjoy as much. There are great scientific studies that show that people go to the gym more when they make listening to a podcast episode or watching a box-set episode the reward for having gone. (You can even put your device in your locker at the gym and physically only watch/listen to it while you’re actually at the gym.)
And if Netflix want to keep their business model from collapsing – because you can’t just keep putting up prices or reducing costs and expect to deliver bigger and bigger dopamine hits – they could do a lot worse than letting you set a timer so that, once you’ve watched an episode, you can’t watch the next one until the timer has run down.
PS – do yourself an instant favour – turn off Netflix’s autoplay features (yes, you can!) It’s in your account settings. Just follow these instructions.