In the new teaser trailer for Bill Nye Saves The World, the Science Guy himself (rebranded now as “Science Man”) informs us that getting hooked on Netflix, his new employer, will improve our lives. Hook yourself, he implores, and the world shall be yours. Nye’s explanation of addiction, however comedic, takes its liberties with the truth.
“Exactly how people become hooked is still to be studied,” he deadpans in the trailer, “but promising new research suggests that when a brain is exposed to a new show, its neural pathways open up, and after a certain number of episodes are consumed, the brain’s reward center is flooded.”
Nye’s explanation is right-ish. When you receive something pleasurable — whether it’s a drug or a new Netflix show — the neurotransmitter dopamine is released, igniting the brain’s pleasure center, the nucleus accumbens. According to experts at Harvard Medical School, the current theory on addiction is that dopamine also interacts with the neurotransmitter glutamate, allowing it to take over the brain’s system of reward-related learning. Related exposure to addictive behavior or substances causes the brain to process liking something as needing it. In short: Your brain likes to feel good.
Nye’s explanation for how we get hooked on Netflix — that the brain’s neural pathways become flooded with pleasure-triggering chemicals — sounds a lot like addiction, but actually operates more like a healthy obsession. That’s because a beloved TV show isn’t quite like addictive drugs, which shortcut the brain’s reward system. Bill Nye Saves The World will likely affect the reward system of the brain in the same way other pleasurable things do: through long, repeated exposure, which is necessary for addiction. Call it a “healthy obsession” or a “positive addiction” — either way, it all comes back to the flow of dopamine.
Addiction research has come a long way since the 20th century, when scientists thought addictions were the result of a lack of willpower. Researchers now understand that it has to do with the flow of chemicals in the brain, and they’re discovering that genetic vulnerability also plays a part in determining who is more susceptible to developing addictions.
Still, if there’s any company that understands hooking, it’s Netflix. The streaming company recently revealed that it knows exactly when a viewer is going to get hooked: When an episode gets 70 percent of viewers watching through a first season’s end, Netflix knows it has you.