It’s the best day of the week—that day parked in front of the TV, indulging what feels like a desperately needed way to “turn off your brain” when you’re fried from a stressful lifestyle and mentally taxing job. A modern day Genesis would probably look something like this: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and on the seventh day, God binge-watched Netflix.”
But is escaping into the latest episode (or six) of your favorite show actually restful? Are we right to turn to TV for a break from mental overload, or is it a temptation we should fight?
For starters, there is truth to the idea that the brain needs a break. Humans are only wired to be focused on a specific task for an hour or two at a stretch before the mind gets fatigued and can’t absorb new information, so mental rest is crucial. There are different types of brain waves: beta waves are present when the mind is alert and focused on a task and alpha waves when the mind is relaxed, free to wander or daydream. In that important alpha state the brain is processing all the info it’s recently taken in, learning from it, storing away memories to make room for more information, and making new connections that spark creative ideas. It’s why workplaces encourage breaks and why we have our best ideas in the shower.
Meditation, light exercise, or even lying quietly are all well-known effective ways to relax the mind—alpha waves become present seconds after we close our eyes and our brain is freed from visual stimulus. But TV? TV is a bit tricker.
Neuroscientists still don’t know exactly what’s going on in the brain when it’s glued to the TV. But EEG studies, which detect electrical activity in the brain, have found that the higher-functioning levels of the brain, like the neocortex we use for analysis and reasoning, go offline when we zombie out in front of the screen. Meanwhile the visual cortex, the brain’s largest cortical tissue, is highly stimulated. This basically leaves the brain in a sort of limbo state of rest—neurons are still firing but the mind is not actually engaged—it’s taking in a boatload of information but not processing it, so the brain isn’t fully relaxed, but it’s not being exercised either.
Contrary to common sense, the trick to mental relaxation isn’t powering off the brain so much as switching up its focus. “The idea that rest is something that you lie down and ‘do nothing’ is really not how the body operates,” Matthew Edlund, a rest and regeneration expert at the Center for Circadian Medicine, told me. “The body is always rebuilding itself, but it rebuilds much better if you vary activities. ‘Turn off your brain’ is not really what you want to do. What you want to do is engage your brain elsewhere.”
The brain doesn’t even shut down when we sleep; in fact it’s working on overdrive since the body is shut down, organizing the information from the day and continuing to learn. Sleep provides a laundry list of benefits including cognitive function, creativity, mood, weight loss and libido.
The question is whether you’re getting any of the same benefits if you eschew the power nap to veg out in front of the latest show you’re hooked on. “Hooked” being the operative word. TV is often called addictive—especially the complex narrative serial shows we tend to binge on.
One theory is that instead of letting the mind process and wander, the rapidly changing visuals and sudden noises trigger the brain’s “orienting response,” an involuntary survival instinct to stay alert and monitor any sudden stimuli in our environment. Some shows (to say nothing of commercials) are specifically shot and edited to keep our attention. It’s why our eyes feel glued to the screen, almost like a hypnotic trance. “There’s something about visual imagery—we’re very visual animals—that when we’re accosted by it we pretty much stop everything else,” said Edlund.
But here’s the rub: we frickin love watching TV. It definitely feels relaxing, and can release endorphins that make us feel good while we watch. Some psychologists say TV can be an effective way to relieve stress by distracting us from our overworked minds and daily worries. It doesn’t require any skill or physical effort, no one is bothering you or asking you to do anything, and you can get lost in a safe fictional narrative and forget about your own problems. This can be an irresistible proposition.
“People are just amazingly stressed, and one of the natural reactions is to shut down."
“People are just amazingly stressed, and one of the natural reactions is to shut down,” said Edlund. “It doesn’t necessarily make them feel better… but the instinct is to try to shut down and lie passively. Even if it doesn’t work real well I think that’s a very natural thing to do. When we’re stuck with stuff we don’t really know how to control, I think we just become passive.”
To some extent, escapism is just human nature, and TV offers it up on a silver platter. Media psychologist Pamela B. Rutledge agreed that a bit of distraction can be rejuvenating, and that anything that lowers stress can be a good thing. “Television provides an escape, since we travel into a new world, we have the sense of being present in the imaginary world,” she told me.
Whether TV is good or bad for well-being depends of course on what we’re watching. Educational programs may challenge the brain more than, say, watching Simpsons reruns. But one 2012 study found that re-watching shows can help restore your mental resources. Familiar shows follow a predictable pattern that the brain can interpret as safety and security, Rutledge said. Research has found that comedies can activate the insular cortex and amygdala regions of the brain needed for a balanced mood. And “TV programs, especially binge watching, create a sense of social connection because we feel we know the characters; the sense of connection triggers our reward center,” said Rutledge.
But watch too much (and Americans now watch a whopping five hours a day) and TV can make us end up feeling even worse, studies have found. A Scientific American article (readable version here) on television addiction explains:
“The sense of relaxation ends when the set is turned off, but the feelings of passivity and lowered alertness continue. Survey participants commonly reflect that television has somehow absorbed or sucked out their energy, leaving them depleted. They say they have more difficulty concentrating after viewing than before. In contrast, they rarely indicate such difficulty after reading. After playing sports or engaging in hobbies, people report improvements in mood. After watching TV, people’s moods are about the same or worse than before.”
TV’s efficacy as a form of rest is still an understudied area and there's not enough scientific evidence to say definitively whether turning to television to relax is a good idea. It can also take time away from activity we know to be productive and healthy. In other words, it’s safe to say that the guilty voice in your head saying you’re better off hitting the yoga mat is worth listening to.
For most people, active rest like exercise, meditation or hanging out with friends is better than passive rest to regenerate the body and mind, said Edlund. “If you combine social and physical activity, you’ll feel more stimulated, alert, alive than vegging out in front of TV,” he said.
“When you wanna grow new brain cells, you walk across the street.”
You’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is Motherboard’s exploration of the future of sleep. Read more stories.