Podcast prompts science inquiry

Podcast Corner

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NPR

The top of the podcast charts got more crowded this month after NPR released its newest podcast, “Invisibilia.”

Hosted by Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller, the show’s hour-long episodes examine the invisible forces around us that affect our everyday lives and behavior. Spiegel and Miller have been working in radio for a long time, and that becomes apparent when you hear the tight editing and charming interviews on “Invisibilia.” Like “This American Life,” the show that Spiegel began her radio career on as a founding producer since 1995, all of the stories in each episode of “Invisibilia” are related to a theme.

At first, the premise of “Invisibilia” seems about how market forces affect buying decisions or how political leaders shape a citizen’s everyday life. Instead, “Invisibilia” is producing some of the best science journalism in any medium today. The first two episodes primarily focus on psychology, while the second episode briefly dabbles with snake physiology. Like the popular podcast “Radiolab,” of which Miller is an alumna, “Invisibilia” not only focuses on uncovering the science behind each story but also follows the host’s theories on why something is happening. This gives some of the stories an investigative flair, because the host inserts herself in the story and gives us a look into how she came to her conclusions.

The first episode is “The Secret History of Thoughts,” and it gives us a look into how our thoughts can consume us and free us. The first story titled “Dark Thoughts” introduces us to a man who becomes obsessed with violent thoughts after watching a movie with his wife. These thoughts terrorize him day and night for years until he is finally able to find a source of relief through a radical-sounding therapy. The story is emotionally biting, and you can feel the tone shift as he starts to be able to control these violent thoughts. Most radio programs or podcasts signal emotional changes such as this with music, but “Invisibilia” features remarkably little music and opts to not even have a theme song. Like “Radio Lab,” “Invisibilia” uses man-on-the-street interviews and repeated sound bites from interviews to build tension and to lighten the atmosphere.

The first episode also includes a story about a man’s agonizing experience of being locked inside his own body without any control. The second episode, “Fearless,” investigates a woman who is not capable of experiencing fear and follows a man through a journey to get over his fear of rejection. The characters feel fully developed, and you learn quite a bit about the hosts throughout each show.

If you are looking for more “Invisibilia,” Spiegel and Miller recently guest hosted “This American Life” and “Radiolab” with stories in the same vein. To listen to the first two episodes, “Invisibilia” can be downloaded or streamed free from NPR’s website. Listeners with smartphones can either check the iTunes Store or their favorite third-party podcast app for the show.

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Follow Partick O’Connor on Twitter.


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