A good podcast is like a really good friend. Its conversation is always stimulating, but you never feel stupid. It keeps you company whenever you need it but are free to do your own thing. And, most importantly, you know you it will never date a moron that you'll have to pretend to like. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you NPR's Invisibilia with Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller.
Invisibilia's raison d'être is to examine the murky territory where mind meets body, and to suggest the line between the two is not as rigidly drawn as one might expect. In the wrong hands, this podcast might be excruciatingly dull or obnoxiously condescending. But Radiolab's Lulu Miller and This American Life's Alix Spiegel are both the best kind of journalist — they're storytellers.
Invisibilia tells the stories of people whose experiences will expand the way you view your universe. And unlike that philosophy major you tried to date in college, you won't want smack them upside the pan with a frying pan.
The only fault I've found with the podcast is that there isn't a new one every day. To feed your addiction between episodes, why not take a closer look at the books behind the stories? If this results in your becoming a science nerd, so be it. Haven't you always wanted to find out what wearing a pocket protecter feels like?
Ghost Boy: My Escape from a Life Locked Inside My Own Body by Martin Pistorius
Martin Pistorius is the locked-in man of Invisibilia's first episode "The Secret History of Thoughts." This book delves deeper into the mind of the man who was locked in his own motionless body. It's heady stuff. Listen to the podcast here.
All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood by Jennifer Senior
The episode Fearless opens with the sounds of children playing alone in the woods and continues to cover how fear affects our brains. This sound is pretty unfamiliar to most people in my generation because, apparently, our helicopter parents were cowards who so badly wanted to keep us safe that they stunted our cognitive development. This book is a manifesto to parents to let their tiny people go. Listen to the podcast here.
Prisoners of Hate: The Cognitive Basis of Anger, Hostility, and Violence by Dr. Aaron T. Beck
Dr. Aaron Beck is the psychiatrist in "The Secret History of Thoughts" who turned to his patient and asked, "How do you know your thoughts are true?" Um, what? His theory is that those nasty thoughts (I'm not good enough; I could murder my boss; my life sucks) are meaningless. You don't really believe what you think. And that the next time your inner monologue gets you down, you should tell it it's a jackass and move on with your day. This is one of Beck's more recent books on how his cognitive theory technique combats aggressive thinking. Listen to the podcast
See What I'm Saying: The Extraordinary Power of Our Five Senses by Lawrence D. Rosenblum
The preview episode of Invisibilia aired on This American Life and told the story of a man who sees with his mouth. Pshaw — I hear you say. But it's true. Daniel Kish lost his eyes as a child and has since been using echolocation (clicking, like bats do, to bounce sound off things and figure out where they are) to see. And he does see. This book examines how the brain makes that possible. Listen to the podcast
Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon
Andrew Solomon is a special writer. If you don't believe me, look at his New Yorker profile of Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook Elementary School gunman. It's not just his elegant prose that make Solomon stand out, it's the empathy that he conveys, even when his subject is as unsympathetic as you get. This book is about children who are fundamentally different than their parents — children who are gay, transgender, of different faiths or differently abled. It's as much about identity as it is about science. If what interested you about the Batman of Invisibia's "Batman" episode was the quality of the storytelling as much as the science, you should read this book. Listen to the podcast here.
The Search for Delicious by Natalie Babbitt
Lulu Miller has a small series on her website called The Search for Delicious, which obviously in named after this book about a boy trying to define the meaning of delicious. The mini-podcasts are just some interesting conversations she recorded with her friend Sam Dingman about magicians, the sound of multitasking, colanders, and the BFG. She calls it The Search for Delicious because she explains her curiosity like this; "... isn’t that what we’re all doing, anyway? Just searching… for that elusive delicious." Listen to the series here.
The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson
Jon Ronson brings a suprising levity to the topic of psychopaths. He gives a complete history of the psychopath qualification checklist (yup, actually a thing) and boldly enters into the worlds of psychopaths to demand they take the test. Alix Spiegel also covered this weird checklist for This American Life and somehow got Ira Glass to do it. Is Ira Glass a psychopath? Find out here.
The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics by Stanislas Dehaene
The mind creates math. The mind creates math! You just create it. IN YOUR MIND. Newborn babies understand quantity but in a completely different way than we do. Did I just blow your mind? You know I did — blew the calculus right out. Read the book. And listen to Lulu Miller's Radiolab episode on this topic here.
The Talent Code: Greatness isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How. by Daniel Coyle
Daniel Coyle is a journalist so he gets that to make regular people read about science you have to attach it to a story. In this book he goes to various hotbeds of talent, breaks down what happens there, and finds a pattern. Lulu Miller interview him on Radiolab about a bike race across America and how anyone could possibly do it. Apparently, a big part of the talent pattern is insanity. Listen to the podcast here and find out why.
Images: Emanuele Rosso/flickr