What happens to our brains when we sit down in front of a TV, unsure of exactly what we want to watch, and we find ourselves suddenly confronted with hundreds of options? Over the past few decades the number of TV channels available to watch has grown at an incredible rate.

From the average of 33 channels available to watch in 1990, to more than 100 channels in 2003, and surpassing 150 channels in 2009. How has the increasing number of channels affected our brains? While there has been plenty of research done on how the human brain reacts to watching television shows as well as research that shows what happens when we’re faced with a large number of options, there is not really any research to demonstrate what happens when we’re confronted by hundreds of channel options specifically.

The surprising lack of research on how TV channel options affects our brain doesn’t mean that nothing happens when we come face-to-face with the monstrous list of channels provided to us. When we look at both types of research together — how our brain reacts to many options and how our brain works while we’re watching TV — we can get a pretty good idea of what our brains are doing when we see hundreds and hundreds of channel options.

Looking through the research that has been done on how options can affect the brain, having a seemingly endless list of TV channels to scroll through does impact your brain, that much is certain. So what exactly happens to your brain when you see a list of more than 300 channels? When you press the “on” button for your TV and begin your search for something to watch, how are you being effected? But what exactly is going on in the top of your head when you press the “on” button and start browsing stations with little idea of what you’re searching for? To answer that question, I looked into the research done over the past several years and came up with both good news and bad news. First, the bad news.

Choice Fatigue

According to a number of studies performed at the University of Minnesota by Kathleen Vohs, having a large number of options to choose from can sap stamina right out of you.[1] If you’ve ever felt physically tired or irritable after trying to decide what to watch on TV, or what cereal to buy at the store, or what to do on a Saturday night, you’ve encountered choice fatigue. Choice fatigue, or “brain strain,” is when your brain grows tired as a result of excessive decision making or thinking. When you spend a day shopping at the mall, for example, you might encounter choice fatigue as a result of browsing so many options. After shopping for a while you’ll start to feel mentally and physically tired. That’s choice fatigue. The effect can also occur when the brain attempts to decipher all of the hundreds of possible options for entertainment when you turn on the TV. As your brain struggles to decide on what to watch — even as your brain tries to wrap itself around the monstrous number of options merely available to you — it will start to become overwhelmed by cognitive overload, too many signals being sent from the neurons in your brain at a single time.

The effect is even stronger when we watch cable TV because each channel we see is offering hours of programming. The human brain has its limits. Your brain has only a limited capacity for decision making and focusing attention, let alone thinking. When we start to scan through a list of over 300 television channels we’re quickly using up our brain’s functioning capacity. Officially known as “executive function,” our cognitive functioning abilities only have so much energy for decision making. Overloading ourselves by becoming exposed to hundreds of options can prove downright exhausting.[2] You could be a super-human brainiac, and still your brain would be overworked trying to sort all of the options available through cable television. So what does your brain do when confronted with all of the channel options? If we look at the research demonstrating choice fatigue, we can be led to believe that your brain will quickly become exhausted and begin to show signs of fatigue, slowing down and becoming mentally weak. The neurons firing to send signals to your body and other parts of the brain will start to slow down and some connections will temporarily stop altogether in an attempt to conserve energy.

Selective Perception

In some situations your brain will try to combat the effects of choice fatigue by subconsciously tuning-out some of the options available to it. If you’ve never watched a crime drama before, your brain instinctively knows to “block” you from considering a channel broadcasting anything that may be a crime drama. This effective method of tuning-out is called “selective perception” and it allows us to go about our daily business without having to constantly decide what deserves our attention and what doesn’t.[3] Think of those times your sibling or friend or spouse was talking but you didn’t really hear what they said, that’s selective perception. It’s this ability to select which information we pay attention to and which information we ignore that allows us to not get completely overwhelmed or mentally exhausted when, for example, trying to decide what to watch on TV.

Choice Paralysis

Still, a large list of options can be just too daunting for our brains and lead us into a tiring game of repeatedly flipping through channels. Eventually we might get so mentally exhausted that we end up “just picking something” to watch or turning off the TV altogether, defeated by the heavy choice of what to watch. At least, that’s been the result of research done on options affect the brain in the past. When we look at the number of options available to us, we not only can experience choice fatigue, we tend to suffer from total choice paralysis. In a talk given during 2005 at the annual TED event (which brings together some of the world’s brightest and most innovative thinkers), Barry Schwartz, an American psychologist and writer, explains that “with so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all.”[4] Even if we can overcome our choice paralysis, Schwartz explains that we’re more likely to be dissatisfied with the choice we do make. Why would we be dissatisfied if we finally decide on what to watch? With so many options, “it’s easy to imagine that you could have made a better choice,” says Schwartz.

Compounding the Overwhelmed

At this point we may find ourselves physically exhausted and, more importantly, because our minds will be sapped of their energy, we’ll struggle to make other decisions. The scenario we’ve been exploring here isn’t far-fetched, as research studies have found the results of option-overload and choice paralysis to be very real.[3] Even with services like Netflix or iTunes, if you don’t already have some idea of what you want to watch, the massive amount of options available to you can become incredibly overwhelming. From the studies we’ve looked at, we could easily say that, on the surface, your brain is simply no match for the hundreds and hundreds of options available to watch on TV. Yet, there’s still a whole other side to this issue that makes the idea of 300+ channels to chose from a little less overwhelming for our brains. The large list of channels to pick from can be somewhat good for us, just as much as it is bad. The good news from similar research is that a wide selection of TV channels means that we are more likely to find something that matches our emotional state, which, as you’re about to find out, plays a big part in our experience.

Emotional Choosing

In his book “How we Decide”, Jonah Lehrer explains that many decisions we make aren’t — as we tend to believe — led by reason, but are instead decided on by a generous mix of reason and emotions together. If you’re feeling sad or depressed, you’re more likely to decide on a chocolaty, ice cream snack over a bundle of fresh broccoli to eat, for example. One reason we pick the not-so-good-for-us treat over a healthy alternative when we’re feeling down is simple: the sugary snack is more likely to release endorphins (those little hormones that make you feel good) into the body, improving your mood ever so slightly. Your brain knows that the chocolate isn’t good for you, but your emotions get the better part of you and so you reach for the pint of ice cream rather than the freshly steamed broccoli. If our emotions can affect what we decide to eat, they can certainly affect what we watch on TV. In the scientific paper “Brain Research and Mediated Experience: An Interpretation of the Implications for Education” Paul Gathercoal explains how television causes endorphins to be released, much along the same way that ice cream stirs up the same happy hormones. Gathercoal explains: “Researchers have found that endorphins in the brain are released in response to. . . an emotional experience. Any emotional experience, whether real or imagined, can cause a release of multiple forms of endorphins.” When you have hundreds of different channels to pick from on TV you’re likely to find at least something that can release endorphins into your system. When you’re sad, you may want to search for a TV show that lifts your spirits and improves your mood, or maybe you’d rather watch a show that empathizes with how you’re feeling. On the other side of things, if you feel happy you’re likely to watch something that makes you laugh or builds up your happiness even more. Having a huge array of channels to select from means you’re more likely to fulfill your emotional desires and be happier (or sadder) for it. In-fact: studies have shown that our brains respond in dramatic, emotional ways to what we watch on TV.

If we’re watching a show that is positive and full of smiling faces, we’re more likely to feel happy ourselves. Similarly: if we decide to watch a show that is upsetting or portrays events that encourage sadness, we’ll feel upset or sad.[4] Being able to see a large list of shows that may potential match your emotional state will make you feel better. So here we have two, somewhat opposing, responses to the absolutely massive amount of TV channels available to us. On the negative side, your brain responds to the large number of channels presented before you by becoming stressed out, possibly exhausted, and can suffer from choice fatigue and paralysis. Opposite of that effect, our emotional needs can be fulfilled by having such a large selection of channels to choose from. What conclusions can be drawn from this research exactly? I believe the decision of whether or not having a lot of channel selection is good for you is ultimately a personal decision, but it’s beneficial for you to understand the cost of having so many options available and I hope this series of information has been at informative at the very least. What do you think about having hundreds of channels to watch on TV? Does the amount of selection available to us through cable TV services benefit us, or hurt us in the long run?

Sources: Brain photo by Andrew Mason Brain illustration by Charles Bell via Shaheen Lakhan Tired woman photo by o5com Eye photo by Samuel Johnson Watching TV photo by Marilia Ameida Icecream cone photo by Flickr user

1. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/04/18/AR2008041802473.html 2. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=tough-choices-how-making 3. Nowak, Theodore and Smith, Seymour. “Advertising Works—And Advertising Research Does Too.” Presentation to ESOMAR. Spain: 1970s.s 4. http://www.ted.com/talks/barry_schwartz_on_the_paradox_of_choice.html 5. http://news.cnet.com/Who-really-won-during-the-Super-Bowl/2100-1008_3-6156330.html