It’s true that people often shove more into their brains than they can possibly hold. Last year, Horvath and his colleagues at the University of Melbourne found that those who binge-watched TV shows forgot the content of them much more quickly than people who watched one episode a week. Right after finishing the show, the binge-watchers scored the highest on a quiz about it, but after 140 days, they scored lower than the weekly viewers. They also reported enjoying the show less than did people who watched it once a day, or weekly.
People are binging on the written word, too. In 2009, the average American encountered 100,000 words a day, even if they didn’t “read” all of them. It’s hard to imagine that’s decreased in the nine years since. In “Binge-Reading Disorder,” an article for The Morning News, Nikkitha Bakshani analyzes the meaning of this statistic. “Reading is a nuanced word,” she writes, “but the most common kind of reading is likely reading as consumption: where we read, especially on the internet, merely to acquire information. Information that stands no chance of becoming knowledge unless it ‘sticks.’”
Or, as Horvath puts it: “It’s the momentary giggle and then you want another giggle. It’s not about actually learning anything. It’s about getting a momentary experience to feel as though you’ve learned something.”
The lesson from his binge-watching study is that if you want to remember the things you watch and read, space them out. I used to get irritated in school when an English-class syllabus would have us read only three chapters a week, but there was a good reason for that. Memories get reinforced the more you recall them, Horvath says. If you read a book all in one stretch—on an airplane, say—you’re just holding the story in your working memory that whole time. “You’re never actually reaccessing it,” he says.
Sana says that often when we read, there’s a false “feeling of fluency.” The information is flowing in, we’re understanding it, it seems like it is smoothly collating itself into a binder to be slotted onto the shelves of our brains. “But it actually doesn’t stick unless you put effort into it and concentrate and engage in certain strategies that will help you remember.”
People might do that when they study, or read something for work, but it seems unlikely that in their leisure time they’re going to take notes on Gilmore Girls to quiz themselves later. “You could be seeing and hearing, but you might not be noticing and listening,” Sana says. “Which is, I think, most of the time what we do.”
Still, not all memories that wander are lost. Some of them may just be lurking, inaccessible, until the right cue pops them back up—perhaps a pre-episode “Previously on Gilmore Girls” recap, or a conversation with a friend about a book you’ve both read. Memory is “all associations, essentially,” Sana says.