What Spongebob Can Teach Us about Binge Culture

“Yep, this is great. I might as well rename this town ‘Squidward’s Paradise,’ or perhaps, too much paradise.”

– Squidward Tentacles, Spongebob Squarepants

Have you ever discovered a song that sounded so catchy, you repeated it over and over until it became dull, boring, and perhaps annoying? If so, then you’re not alone.

The first time a catchy song is played on the radio, it sounds deep and rich, and you might convince yourself that it could never become boring. Listen to the same song one hundred more times, however, and I guarantee that it will no longer sound the same as when you first listened to it. Why does this always happen?

You know what they say, you can’t have too much of a good thing. This adage reflects both the physiological and practical limitations of prolonged indulgence in pleasurable activities, such as listening to music, playing video games, viewing Internet pornography, and eating fast food.

Physiologically, at some point the brain becomes less sensitive to previously arousing stimuli, operating under a “pleasure-adaptation” principle. This phenomenon is likely due to neural adaptation in the mesolimbic dopamine system and other key brain areas involved in generating feelings of reward. I’ll use the example of the inability of chronic drug users to re-achieve the same highs as before (“Wow, an article about Spongebob, and he brings up drugs.”). Unfortunately for them, their tolerance levels raise to the point where near-lethal doses are needed for them to induce a slight buzz, and as a result progress to harder substances, get sick from withdrawal, or even die. It’s the course that addiction runs.

More practically, it wouldn’t make sense for us to wipe our memories clean so that we could, for instance, listen to that catchy song forever without it becoming dull or boring. This is not only because it would waste a great deal of time, but because the mind was built for novelty. If anything, evolution wanted us to experience as many new things as possible to maximize the chances of discovery and survival, and by extension, sexual reproduction. Haven’t you ever wondered why over 50 percent of marriages end in divorce? The answer is that over half of once-happy and fulfilling marriages inevitably fail because couples stop being physically attracted to each other, causing them to cheat, argue, and eventually file for divorce. Simply put, the modern institution of marriage is counterproductive to spreading our genes as far as possible, so naturally we become bored after we’ve had sex with the same person for the past 20 years (note: this is not meant to be taken as an attack on marriage, however; I understand that it is a crucial component of adequate child rearing).

The human brain’s constant “scrapping the old” and “embracing the new” also conflicts with modern binge culture. Perhaps the best illustration of the conflict between the adaptation to pleasure and binging is the episode of Spongebob Squarepants where Squidward moves into the town of Tentacle Acres to get away from Spongebob and Patrick (see Season 2, Episode 6).

The basic premise of the episode “Squidville” is that Spongebob and Patrick draw the final straw with Squidward when they accidentally blow up his house. Thus, he moves away to the affluent town of Tentacle Acres that is exclusive to his kind.

At first, Squidward’s new residence seems like a dream come true. He takes up bike riding, shopping for canned bread, interpretive dancing, and playing the clarinet in a trio. However, he engages in these activities so much and so often that eventually he loses complete interest in them, and resorts to harassing the other residents with a reef blower to keep himself occupied.

I love this episode because it teaches kids that when things are taken in excess, they become repetitive and lose meaning. No other episode in a children’s television show can quite depict the consequences of empty binge behavior as accurately as Spongebob did. Furthermore, it poses an important question that we should all ask ourselves: how much “paradise” is considered “too much”? How long does it take before our finest indulgences become stale?

Most of the time, the reason we become bored or disinterested in previously interesting activities is because we chase nonexistent extremes, and thus manufacture ways to be miserable because we’ve forgotten what it’s like to feel good. It’s the same reason why the ecstasy of winning the lottery eventually evaporates, and you revert back to your original level of life satisfaction. Assuming you win $1,000,000, you’ll need to win $2,000,000 next time to feel profoundly ecstatic again. But even then, it won’t necessarily feel the same as that initial jackpot.

It all comes back to this idea of neural adaptation in that when you indulge in any activity that gives you pleasure, you set a new standard by which all other subsequent pleasurable activities are measured up to. In other words, when you find something that brings you joy, that becomes the new norm, and from there you’ll constantly attempt to emulate or even outmatch the joy that you once felt—to “one-up” it, so to speak.

Here are a couple of examples from my life: I am a huge fan of open-world RPGs. I’ve played Destiny (2013), Skyrim (2011), and Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015) for hundreds of hours, but nowadays, whenever I revisit these games, they just don’t feel the same as when I first played them. I hate to say it, but they’ve become boring. On the other hand, when I take long-term breaks and play other games (or maybe read a book), they feel fresh again and I can at least derive some enjoyment from them. Obviously not as much enjoyment as when I played them for the first time, but just enough to keep me reasonably entertained. In addition, I enjoy drinking whiskey. I love its taste and aroma, and how it only takes me a few sips to get a nice buzz going. However, I’m aware that if I drank it every single night, day by day, not only would I suffer severe health consequences, but the quality of that “buzzed” feeling would drop exponentially. One drink would become two, two drinks would become four, and four drinks would become eight just so I could re-achieve or outmatch that buzz.

Just like “Squidville,” my takeaway message for you is to always moderate your leisure activities. Because binging, while indeed fun, can only get you so far before you start feeling a little empty inside.