Here's Why Watching Documentaries is Good for You
Updated: Sep 19
It’s comforting to watch your favorite sitcom after a long day. It’s an easy way to unwind. But those 3–4 hours you’re using to view The Office, or Shameless for the tenth time could be used more productively just by selecting a documentary. Psychological studies are showing that watching more documentaries can be useful for your brain and mental health.
Documentaries have the power to be anything. They have few limitations compared to narratives that need to stick to rigid story structures to hold an audience’s attention. You could dive into a documentary about the world of professional wrestling, go behind the scenes with larger-than-life pop stars, or uncover what happened to a girl who was abducted in plain sight.
Keeping our brains active and introducing new information regularly can lead to more extended mental clarity. One of the best ways to do this is to learn directly from experts and researchers, even while our body is at rest. It’s similar to switching out a cookie with an apple; we trade short-term satisfaction for long-term benefits. According to some studies, re-watching the same program over and over can lead to our brain’s early deterioration. We rob the mind of new information while we consume something we already know.
Documentaries also help us develop empathy for the people inhabiting the world around us, whether for groups of people we’ve never encountered or for a wrongly-convicted killer. As humans, we often fear what we don’t understand, but an excellent documentary should aim to alleviate that fear and replace it with a new sense of understanding. Empathy, on a base level, helps us connect to others around us.
Not only this, but fact is often stranger than fiction. Take this spring’s explosive hit, Tiger King, for example. You wouldn’t be able to dream up a plot as crazy as that one. Not all documentaries focus on retelling historical events that we learned about in high school. Most of the big names in the medium are modern-day accounts of extraordinary people or events.
Documentaries force you to do some thinking of your own, too. Although everything tends to be presented as fact, you should be aware that the filmmakers behind a documentary can spin things anyway. Whether that’s to bring to light the truth or to demonize someone, the filmmaker in the editing room has the power. When a study was done at the University of Missouri, most participants said that they watched documentaries for the factual information.
Now, wouldn’t this be a reason to avoid documentaries, since they can so easily be deceptive? Not necessarily. As adults, we are less encouraged to think critically than we were when we attended school. Therefore, introducing activities that naturally invite critical thinking into our routines, even small ones, can help us work out the mental muscle more regularly.
Films like Netflix’s Voyeur introduce us to unreliable narrators and plot twists that upend everything we were told until then, naturally helping us engage that critical thinking muscle without too much issue. Not only that, but similar true-crime films are great ways to get your gears turning in general. You’re not just watching something; you’re actively engaging with what you’re consuming.
There’s nothing wrong with watching your favorite comfort show again, but switching it up every once in a while can be beneficial. As a bonus, this new information that we get through documentaries usually isn’t delivered in a dry, textbook style. Docs tend to be gripping once you dig into one that connects with you. Even though escapism can be tempting, especially with the excess of stress in our current world, using our downtime productively is essential to making sure our lives are as enriched as possible.
Go out there and watch some captivating documentaries, everyone!