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“The real voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new landscapes, but in seeing with new eyes” – Marcel Proust
I have a ritual every year, since 2001. With the onset of winter, as the weather begins to creep in ever so colder, I pull one of my copies (I have more than one, sue me) of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods off the bookshelf and I read it cover to cover over the course of a couple of days. I just finished my latest visit to Gaiman’s magnum opus and, rather than become stale, I find that every time I dive into that mythical America (18 now, if my math checks out) the experience is ever sweeter, ageing like wine rather than vinegar. It’s my happy place. And as a scientifically literate adult, I’m left wondering why that is.
Why is it that even though we are living in the golden age of entertainment, with a slew of new shows arriving in our streaming queues and trending on our timelines everyday, do we still opt to re-watch a show we already love rather than hitting play on shiny new series? Why do we prefer to dust off DVD from the shelf and dive back into something we know and love, instead of plunging headlong into the unknown?
Well, according to research out of the American University, Washington D.C, it’s precisely because it is the unknown. Allow me to explain.
As found in a 2012 study in the Journal of Consumer Research, the act of “reconsumption” brings humans great comfort. That is, since we shy away from the unknown we instead reconcile ourselves by actively choosing to revisit things we already love, and according to the science that’s ok. Better than ok, in fact. It’s actually quite good for you.
How you ask? Well, the 2012 study tells us that re-consuming media isn’t just dipping a toe into a pool of nostalgia, it is actively helping us to consolidate memories, re-center our sense of self and allow us a brief transcendence from the whips and scorns of time. This kind of “regressive reconsumption” allows us to travel back to a happier time in our lives, either real or imagined. It is a consolidation of our previous experiences, beliefs or memories. We remember a time when we were happy and we use the media we consumed at this point to build a foundation around that memory. If you shared a favourite movie with a family member or watched a TV show exclusively with a partner, then re-watching it will allow you a tangible anchor for the feelings you experienced not just with the media but with the people involved.
You see, memory itself is an incredibly flawed construct and we cannot rely on it alone to provide comfort, since every time the memory is accessed it is also degraded to an extent. So we also indulge in what is known as “reconstructive reconsumption”. This is borne of our desire to refresh or reconstruct the memory of our experiences.
Put more simply, when we watch a show our memories of it are not always pristine. We forget things. It’s a process called “humanity” and we all suffer from it. It is the tragic fate of many memories to eventually fade, and so to preserve what we love we must be ever vigilant in keeping it fresh.
Reconstructive reconsumption (re-watching, basically) is what keeps our favourite shows from becoming stale. It provides us with a satisfying blend of familiarity from the things about the show that we remember and details that we have forgotten and are discovering anew. Every re-watch is like a little game you play against yourself, of what you remember and what you don’t.
It can be argued that re-watching a television show can, in fact, be more satisfying than watching it for the first time. There’s the little dopamine kick your brain gives you for recognising your favourite scenes and anticipating action and the secondary dopamine hit from discovering new details that you had previously missed. As one participant in the study put it, “you exactly know what’s coming up, there’s so many layers and everytime you rewatch it you find a few new things that you haven’t really thought about before.”
Other participants found that the familiarity of the media, knowing what comes next and the predictability of the reconsumption offers control over the passage of time. The sense of control that comes from being able to throw yourself completely into parts of the work that you like and skip over the bits that make you uncomfortable – something not possible when everything is completely new to you – are like a warm blanket you can throw around yourself to make time disappear. You’re in a happy place where you dictate the terms.
This kind of experiential control is what keeps media fresh. There’s always a risk of overconsumption whenever you go back to the things you love – you run the risk of getting sick of it. But when you’re in total control of how you experience it – skipping to the good bits, skipping over the bad parts, knowing the fate of your favourite characters or that the bad guy’s schemes won’t come to fruition – allows you a sense of control over the narrative.
But even the 2012 study found that the experience of reconsumption, sometimes, can’t be put into words. It just…feels good. A state where “the self and the object of consumption become one and where the body and also the mind are at equilibrium with their environment.” It’s almost zen-like. An act of self care.
So don’t feel guilty about revisiting your favourite books, movies and TV shows. It’s good for you – the science is on your side! As our study puts it, “hedonic volitional reconsumption…is a petition, a form of actively seeking, a way of asking for something from the past, a way of becoming rather than returning”.
Cast aside your guilt, ignore Anthony Robbins and throw that DVD in the player. Scientifically speaking, you’re building a better you.