If you willingly watch medical shows, you're signing up for a good amount of blood and guts, on top of the already tense drama. Whether it's a documentary and the trauma is real, or a soap opera where the blood is corn syrup, the horror of the sight of a body un-done is impactful. What happens to your brain when you watch graphic medical footage is not entirely dissimilar to the kind of reaction you might have if you were to witness it firsthand.
According to neuropsychologist Dr. Marian Rissenberg, Ph.D., simply watching emergency room shows activates the sympathetic nervous system. "The fight or flight response is triggered, which increases heart rate and blood pressure and redirects blood from our major organs to our limbs, so we can battle or run, and so on." Dr. Rissenberg says. "We like the feeling of being scared, on a smaller scale or a virtual plane, when we are confident we will be OK," she says, adding that our feelings translate to excitement, which is what makes these kinds of shows so engrossing, even as you watch them through the spaces between your fingers.
If you recently devoured every episode of Lenox Hill and found yourself utterly in awe of how cheerful and peaceful the doctors were while sawing skulls and scraping out tumors, you might be curious about what's going on in their heads. According to Dr. Rissenberg, when you're exposed to this kind of content every day, you learn how to stomach it and your brain creates new circuitry to accommodate it. Basically, doctors program their brains to see injuries as a problems that need to be fixed, rather than stimuli to have an emotional response over. "When a motor response is practiced many times, the cerebellum makes a macro for it (a mini short-cut program) so even if its very complex you can do it without your cortex — without thinking." Dr. Sonia Shah, M.D., an emergency medicine physician in Chicago, Illinois, certainly sees it that way: "As an emergency medicine physician, it is my job to be prepared for literally any type of injury or illness that comes through the emergency room and stabilize it."
Dr. Rissenberg says that your feelings towards gore are generally hard-wired from birth. "Some people thrive on the adrenaline rush of working in the ER say, but many of us would find it too stressful." Essentially, depending on your natural disposition, you might be well-suited for working in the ER, or better suited for watching ER. "We all have a different optimal stress level, too much and we’re anxious, not enough and we’re bored."
We have a morbid fascination with nature.
Our obsession with medical drama isn't new. Shows featuring complex diagnoses and procedures have topped viewership charts since 1952, when the first medical drama show,City Hall , aired on CBS. And even after 16 seasons of Grey's Anatomy, the show was just ABC's most-watched program. But if this content is so stressful to consume that half the time you're looking away, why are do we keep coming back for more?
Part of the reason why people are able to watch these shows is because there is an awareness that the drama is not a threat to them — because they know and trust doctors (IRL and onscreen) to stay cool and collected during chaos. Doctors on TV aren't panicking, so viewers at home don't need to either.
But we also seek out that fight-or-flight response. "We have a morbid fascination with nature," Dr. Rissenberg says. "Particularly our own amazing bodies, and all the things that can go wrong, but that are thankfully not going wrong for us in the moment," she adds. According to Dr. Shah, these shows allow us to look at something we would not otherwise be invited to see. "I imagine that on some subconscious level, we cannot help but be intrigued at seeing something so socially unacceptable and morbid," she says.
Dr. Marian Rissenberg, Ph.D., neuropsychologist, practicing in Katonah, New York.
Dr. Sonia Shah, M.D., an emergency medicine physician practicing in Chicago, Illinois.