The first time “The Bachelorette” autoplayed into my life in 2013, I knew I was a goner. I had not sought out this show. It had chosen me, delivered by the whim of a Hulu algorithm and ensnaring me in its rosy grasp. As soon as I had begun watching the gentle-souled Desiree Hartsock set out in her quest to find The One, I was hooked.
I have enjoyed “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” and even “Bachelor in Paradise” ever since stumbling upon Desiree’s season, but my pleasure in this show has always been accompanied by a bit of shame and a genuine worry: Was watching “The Bachelor” making me dumb? My head never feels more empty than at the end of an episode. Is this because the show sends me into a state of deep, meditative relaxation? Or does each rose ceremony carry off a dozen of my brain cells, never to return?
I recently set out to answer this question by having a brain scan while watching clips of “The Bachelor.” Functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, uses a powerful magnetic force to track the passage of blood on its merry quest around the human brain. By seeing what parts of the brain are awash in iron-rich oxygenated blood, you can see what regions are more active than others.
My colleague Anna Rothschild and I traveled to Indiana University at Bloomington, where two scientists agreed to clamp my head to a gurney and insert my immobile form into a whirring magnetic tube normally reserved for proper scientific inquiry.
This season’s Bachelor is Arie Luyendyk Jr., known only as Arie in this universe where youngish lovers pursue the dream of marital bliss without the hindrance of surnames. Arie is a deeply uncontroversial 37-year-old race-car driver turned real estate agent from Scottsdale, Ariz. He’s relatively handsome — if Arie were your accountant, for instance, you might tell your friends, “I have a surprisingly hot accountant.” In Bachelor Nation, however, all good citizens must suspend disbelief and agree that it is plausible — nay, natural — that such a man would be the focal point of the fierce romantic competition of 29 beautiful and charming women.
Any pseudo-experiment worth its salt requires a neutral control, so in addition to watching moments from “The Bachelor” meant to elicit strong emotions, I needed clips that were likely to inspire no feelings in me whatsoever. For that purpose, I selected three clips of Arie talking about his hopes and dreams, in all his perfect neutrality. The other clips were ones meant to induce feelings of empathy, vicarious embarrassment and intense dislike. For the latter, I chose the greatest moments of this season’s villain, the 29-year-old fitness coach Krystal, known for her ability to stretch the word “hiiyeeee” over three punishing seconds.
When it was time to receive the results of my scan, Sharlene Newman, a professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University at Bloomington, kindly explained that it would not actually be possible to see individual brain cells, to find out if they were dying in real time.
However, there were other kinds of brain activity to track. As I anticipated, the clips I watched of Arie elicited so little activity in my brain that Newman said I “may as well have been asleep.”
I’m sorry, Arie. I’m sure that by the end of this season you will find a wife in whose brain you will stir a scientifically observable presence of oxygenated blood.
My reaction to Krystal, however, was entirely different. While Newman gently assured us that the technology does not yet exist to watch brain cells being murdered in real time, it did appear as though every time I saw Krystal on screen, my brain caught on fire.
As you can see in the above image, Krystal lit up my amygdala, which is a center for emotional processing and is associated with anger, as well as my anterior cingulate cortex and orbitofrontal cortex, associated with regulating emotion. This means that while my feelings were set ablaze, with the fMRI capturing the presence of oxygen-rich blood in angry bits of the brain, another, more educated part of my brain was trying to rein these feelings in, telling myself that it would be inappropriate to totally lose it over a woman on reality TV, even if she did speak in a sexy baby voice.
Another region of my brain to light up with activity was the striatum — an area associated with drug addiction and craving. It seemed I both hated and adored Krystal more than I would ever have cared to admit. If Krystal wasn’t making me dumb, she was at least sending me on an emotional spiral.
Outright fury, a civilizing restraint and a budding addiction: This was my brain on Krystal.
As illuminating as my time in the tube had been, however, there is no magnetic field powerful enough to truly answer the question of why I consistently feel such shame for watching “The Bachelor.” To get to the bottom of this, I spoke to Brenda Weber, who studies reality TV and is the chair of the department of gender studies at Indiana University at Bloomington.
It turns out that shaming people for enjoying certain forms of culture is nothing new. I might be feeling shame from watching “The Bachelor,” Weber explained, “because people buy into the cultural hierarchies that say high culture is more important than low culture. Anything that requires an expert to help you understand it is always already more important than something that you can watch without an interpreter.” So you may need an expensive degree to truly understand centuries of wisdom generated about Shakespeare, but because “The Bachelor” is accessible to the masses may be why some people call it “trash.”
One person who expertly straddles the supposedly separate worlds of high and low culture is Sharleen Joynt, a Canadian opera singer who appeared on Juan Pablo Galavis’s season of “The Bachelor” and now writes Bachelor recaps for Flare.com. Could someone who works in high art see the artistry of reality TV?
“I think what the producers do is a true art,” Joynt told us. When it comes to her colleagues in the opera world, however, “the usual opinion is that all reality TV is garbage,” she explained. “It’s a shame, because I do think there is a lot of joy in watching ‘The Bachelor’ and I do think there is an artistry there, and it’s fascinating.”
As I came to understand that watching “The Bachelor” was not in fact going to make me dumb — or at the very least, any dumber than I already am — I wondered what it could do to a brain to actually be on “The Bachelor.”
Although Joynt dumped her Bachelor on the show, she believes that the process can lead to actual love — and thinks that if she had met her non-reality-TV husband in that hyper-intense setting, they would have ended up together just the same.
“I challenge anyone to go on that show and stay for a while and not feel some feelings for the lead,” Joynt explained. “It’s tunnel vision. You don’t have anything else to focus on. … I really think that the longer you stay, the more special you feel, and it’s hard not to credit your bachelor with making you feel special, because he’s kept YOU all this time.”
Former Bachelorette Desiree Siegfried (then Hartsock) says that the lack of distractions led her to love, marriage and now a baby with contestant Chris Siegfried. “You’re not talking to your girlfriends. You’re not talking to family members. You don’t have any connection to the outside world,” she told me. “It’s very conducive to figuring out who is there for you and what you want, because you don’t have other opinions” to distract you.
It’s possible to fall in love quickly because of the heightened nature of the experience, Siegfried says, but it was also one of the hardest things she has ever done. “It’s like 10 years of dating. Imagine all of the emotions you go through in 10 years — that could be three different boyfriends, dating ups and downs — condensed down to 10 weeks.”
If we love the story of how Romeo and Juliet met, married and died in less than four days, why shouldn’t we believe that the glossy-haired, abstastic contestants on “The Bachelor” could fall in love?
As for its viewers: You can be a passive watcher of “The Bachelor,” or you can watch it while thinking critically about gender, about the ways in which reality TV creates narratives that may be less than real, and about the way the show tries to cope with issues such as race, slut-shaming and consent as awkwardly as wider society does. You can watch “The Bachelor,” or whatever form of “low” culture most appeals to you, in an intelligent manner — just as you can go to an art museum and stupidly laugh at the nakedly languishing men and women of Baroque art.
In less time than it takes Bachelor contestants to complete the journey from perfect strangers to happily engaged, in any case, I have finally come to terms with my Monday night ritual. I will no longer consider this ridiculous show a guilty pleasure, but merely a pleasure.