Soap Operas Can Damage Your Brain, Research Claims

According to neurologist, Erwin Höllinger, what happens in our brains when we watch soap operas can be really dangerous. In this article, we tell you why.
Soap Operas Can Damage Your Brain, Research Claims
Sergio De Dios González

Written and verified by the psychologist Sergio De Dios González.

Last update: 07 September, 2022

It might surprise you that something as seemingly harmless as a soap opera could have the ability to damage an organ as complex as the brain. However, it seems it could be true. This assertion comes from Erwin Höllinger, professor and neurologist at the University of Salzburg (Austria).

Soap operas are series of the melodramatic genre. They’re produced in large quantities and tend to have huge audiences. In fact, they make up a multi-million dollar industry. Furthermore, soap operas are used as vehicles for cultural penetration.

These programs are characterized by the exaggeration of emotions and the dramatization of situations. They tend to move between the romantic, the cheesy, and the dangerous. They usually introduce certain situations to the plot to inject tension so the viewer stays hooked. However, why do they damage the brain?

couple watching tv

Soap operas and science

Erwin Höllinger claims that soap operas can be as damaging as drug addiction. He suggests that they can cause “generalized apathy, irritability, personality disorders, and even dementia”. So why does he see them as such a threat?

Melodramatic soap operas have plots that reflect the fictional lives of a group of people. Their goal isn’t to socially criticize or inform the audience. In fact, they merely seek to entertain. This kind of motivation means that, in many cases, they deal with profound issues in an extremely superficial or simplified way.

For example, they don’t tend to portray characters with any depth but choose stereotypes instead. The public ends up easily identifying with these figures. Mirror neurons are responsible for this fact. They generate a bias by which the brain comes to think that the same rules and mechanisms work in fiction as in reality.

Occasionally, we might develop such a strong connection with one of the characters, we feel as if what’s happening to them is happening to us or one of our loved ones. Consequently, we end up ‘hating’ the ‘bad guy’, suffering with the ‘good guy’, and wanting punishment and reward for them respectively. So much so that we might even end up talking about these characters as if they were family.

Soap operas and the brain

This effect of identification with the characters of soap operas is mediated by mirror neurons. This can generate an alienating effect and our perception of reality becomes distorted to a certain extent. Simultaneously, our emotions and values are incubated and reaffirmed in a succession of extreme situations.

Identification leads us to experience anger at the betrayal suffered by the characters. It invites us to go along with their desire for revenge along with their worries, depression, anxiety, etc. Faced with these soap operas, our brains produce cortisol or adrenaline. It’s the kind of entertainment that, due to the fact that it plays with our emotions, unbalances us.

Woman watching tv, representing that soap operas can damage the brain.

Brain food

Our brains feed on what reaches them. This might be stimulation from the senses or glucose from food intake. Therefore, if the nutrient is soap operas, the result is the same as that produced in a body fueled by an unbalanced diet.

A test carried out by the National Center for the Evaluation of Higher Education (Ceneval) in Spain showed that young people who watch melodramatic soap operas frequently obtained 12 points less, on average, in entrance exams compared to those who watched other types of programs.

Often, in pursuit of entertainment, soap operas show a distorted version of life. They’re seen as a form of a modern story for adults. The story of good guys and bad guys when the good guys usually win or, at least, the bad guys don’t. The plots use universal themes, such as love, fear, honor, justice, or revenge.

As the story unfolds, we have time to experience emotions in tune with the characters. In fact, some of us even feel really upset when a soap opera ends. We tend to miss the protagonists and might even feel that our lives have lost a certain meaning without them.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • García, E. G., Marqués, J. G., & Unturbe, F. M. (2011). Neuronas espejo y teoría de la mente en la explicación de la empatía. Ansiedad y estrés.
  • Manzanera, L. (2011). Culebrones con (mucha o poca) historia. Clío: Revista de historia, (117), 106.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.