I like to sit down for a TV binge to unplug, unwind, and vegetate as much as the next person. But is TV viewing actually a break for your mind?
When I need to take a mental vacation, I often turn to television. Personally, the more mentally fatigued I am, the harder I find it to watch a show or movie with a lot of special effects, complex narratives, or intense action scenes. This is the time for soothing DIY decorating shows, simplistic soapy dramas, or trashy reality TV, in my opinion!
We know that one of the primary symptoms of fibromyalgia is brain fog, which makes concentration and memory problematic, leaving you feeling mixed up, disoriented, or distracted. It stands to reason that mental rest breaks may help people with fibromyalgia reduce their cognitive difficulties. Does TV watching help provide this mental rest?
TV Viewing May Not Be The Mental Vacay You Hoped It Was
It’s true that brain regions responsible for analysis and reasoning, like the neocortex, shut down when we vegetate in front of a TV screen. However, the visual cortex, which processes images, is hyperactive. This contradiction, between a highly stimulated visual cortex that is receiving large amounts of data, and a zonked out neocortex which isn’t able to analyse that information, puts your brain in a state of limbo (Vice). Your brain is not fully engaged, but neither is it resting.
What does mental rest actually mean? Brain breaks allow the mind to process recent incoming information from your senses, to learn, make connections, and store memories. Mental rest can help improve memory retention in healthy people. “Research suggests short periods of rest — as little as ten seconds… can lead to four times the improvement you get from overnight memory consolidation [while you sleep]” (CBC).
Being in a state of mental rest is associated with alpha brain waves, occurs when you feel relaxed, have daydreams, and your mind can wander. However, a recent study demonstrated that TV watching does not induce the alpha waves necessary for mental rest. Instead, TV watching triggers gamma waves in the visual cortex (Research Matters). Gamma waves are linked to visual perception, emotions, and word repetition.
This doesn’t mean that TV watching isn’t a relaxing way to spend an evening, only that you shouldn’t expect it to improve brain fog or provide mental rest. Instead, boosting alpha waves through activities like listening to calming music, deep breathing, meditation, or guided visualization can give your brain a real break.
Try taking a bit of time in between episodes to rest your eyes and mind, so you don’t overload your visual cortex. Sensory overload is a known energy zapper for people with chronic fatigue.
Does TV Rot Your Brain?
Unfortunately, there is more bad news about the effect of binging TV on long-term cognitive function. Binging for more than three hours per day can lead to greater declines in cognitive focus as you age compared with non-bingers, probably because TV watching is a cognitively passive activity (Live Science). If you’re like me, fibromyalgia has made you an involuntary couch potato, so this study may initially seem like pointless bad news, since there aren’t many other options than watching TV, especially on a flare day.
However, the good news is that cognitively active sedentary activities, like reading, playing board games, or listening to a podcast, are exactly the types of activities that promote brain health as you age. I was happy to discover that listening to audiobooks and podcasts is as beneficial to the brain as reading (Discover)! I’m often unable to read a physical book, due to neck pain or eye-strain, but lying down with my eyes closed and listening is something I can do!
When you need a distraction, try sometimes swapping out watching a TV show with listening to an audiobook chapter or podcast (or radio!) episode may promote your long-term brain health and cognitive function, which should be a priority when you live with an illness linked to cognitive challenges. Intersperse mental breaks that stimulate alpha waves in between your TV watching or audiobook listening sessions to give your mind a chance to process and store all of that new information.
Can TV Watching Reduce Stress?
But even if watching TV doesn’t allow you to completely switch off your mind, can it reduce stress? After all, it often feels good to binge on a television series, at least while you’re doing it (NBC). The sense of excitement and connection to the social world of the characters on a show stimulates the feel-good brain neurotransmitter dopamine. If you’re looking for a good distraction, prime TV is your go-to. Binge watching is the ultimate form of escapism, and distraction can be very necessary when you feel overwhelmed or are in a lot of pain. Distraction is a valid pain management tool.
If you are in a state of high stress, the best choice of TV show may be a rerun of a favourite series. Studies show that the safe predictability and enjoyable familiarity of a rerun can help you lower your stress level (Verywell Mind). It’s not a coincidence that shows like Friends resurged in popularity during the pandemic! Remember that, to your body, stress is stress, so watching psychological thrillers, horror movies, or even tense reality show competitions, will add to your overall stress burden. Comedies, light-hearted dramas, or predictable get-the-bad guy cop shows are better choices if you are feeling overwhelmed.
Use your judgement to pick the best type of show to match your mental and physical state. Since developing fibromyalgia, I have found myself easily swayed emotionally by the plot of shows or books. I am quite picky about avoiding tragic endings, shows with entire casts of unlikeable characters, disturbing or twisted plot lines, or gratuitous violence. One tip for avoiding these types of shows that never fails is to check whether critics rate a show more highly on Rotten Tomatoes than audiences (which is a virtual guarantee you will get a nihilistic plot and sad ending)!
Setting limits ahead of time on how many episodes you watch in a row, ideally no more than two or three, can help you resist the addictive pull of a cliffhanger episode ending. You may find yourself feeling depleted when a series comes to an end, as the dopamine level falls, and reality reasserts itself. Switch to a comedy, or a few minutes of a favourite re-run in order to boost endorphins and counteract that dopamine crash. I like to think of this as the dessert course.
This post was originally published in the Uk Fibromyalgia Magazine
Athalye, A. (2018). Research Matters: https://researchmatters.in/news/televisions-computer-screens-and-other-such-visual-stimuli-induce-gamma-waves-our-brain-study
Buyting, S. (2021). CBC: https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/what-happens-your-brain-when-you-binge-watch-tv-series-ncna816991
Neal, M. (n. d). VICE: https://www.vice.com/en/article/3daqaj/is-watching-tv-actually-a-good-way-to-rest-your-brain
Page, D. (2017).NBC: https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/what-happens-your-brain-when-you-binge-watch-tv-series-ncna816991
Scott, E. (2020). Verywell Mind: https://www.verywellmind.com/the-surprising-benefits-of-re-runs-3144586
Rettner, R. (2021). Live Science: https://www.livescience.com/tv-watching-midlife-brain-health.html
Waiter, J. (2019). Discover Magazine: https://www.discovermagazine.com/mind/audiobooks-or-reading-to-our-brains-it-doesnt-matter