In this day and age, science questions can be answered with a split-second Google search. Compare this to just a few decades ago when you had to go through a doctor or (gasp!) hunt through the library.
We now have access to a knowledge base originally confined to medical professionals. Additionally, we can be more private and honest when Internet searching for information about personal health—including stigmatized issues like mental illness. And now, candid discussions about human health and behavior are coming to airwaves near you.
In their new podcast, Invisibilia, long-time science reporters Lulu Miller (from NPR’s science desk) and Alix Spiegal (of This American Life) examine the unseen—our thoughts, emotions, and ideas—through narrative storytelling, conversation, and scientific information. Invisibilia launched on NPR and member stations in early January, and it’s already the most popular podcast on iTunes.
Spiegal and Miller study things like the chemical components of emotions and how they move throughout the body. They ask, “What would it be like to live without fear?” and “What if our thoughts don’t mean anything at all?”
“We talk about [thoughts, emotions, and ideas] as very real things,” Miller says. “We talk to people who study them as legitimate entities.”
“My grandfather was basically a Freudian analyst-type psychiatrist,” Spiegel says. “I was raised with the ideology that one can take one’s thoughts seriously and understand where they come from. I found it very liberating to re-conceptualize how to think about my own thoughts.”
Science journalism is evolving, and Invisibilia is part of that evolution. Podcasts like Radiolab and Science Friday introduce potentially daunting concepts (disease and outer space, for example) and make them approachable.
Anne Gaudenkauf, senior supervising editor of NPR’s science desk, thinks that science reporting has become mainstream.
“[Science reporting] was a real afterthought many years ago,” she says. “I don’t think it’s just because of journalism. I think it’s because it’s part of our lives. We really are entangled with science and medicine and psychology and technology in ways that we weren’t 30 years ago or even 20 or 10, and it’s changing really fast. People recognize that this is part of how they’re living, and it becomes more interesting.”
James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. Like Invisibilia and Radiolab, Hamblin’s work brings humor and conversation into discussions of health and science.
“There’s an increasing demand for information in media,” Hamblin says. “It really seems like people are looking for the takeaway for how they can make their own lives better.”
Hamblin says the paternalist doctor-patient relationship of the 1970s and 80s is crumbling.
“Doctors just told patients what to do and they did it,” Hamblin says. “It’s now a collaborative environment where doctors are more likely to present you a vision with a series of options, the patient weighs the cost of benefits and makes a decision. It’s more like shopping.”
The first episode of Invisibilia exemplifies these options, when a man referred to as “S” has trouble with his thoughts. After watching a violent movie with his wife, S is overcome by obsessive and disturbing thoughts about harming his wife, dog, and community. In order to separate himself from his thoughts, S attempts several different psychotherapy techniques. Finally, after therapy that included holding a knife to his wife’s throat, he learned a technique to let the thoughts “float away” and no longer control his life.
When Miller heard the story of S, she realized she could think about her own thoughts in a way she hadn’t before.
“What else is out there that I’m not realizing? What other world is there to see?” Miller asked herself. “I don’t think I’ve had a conversion about how I think about my own thoughts, but I’ve had a realization that that is a choice.”
And in the wake of the epically popular Serial, Miller and Spiegal can bring those conversations to listeners in a medium that’s going through a renaissance.
“The amount of time we spend with text is fatiguing,” Miller explains. “Here’s another way to get information that’s fun. Throw a little banjo music under there, have other elements. I think that there’s a lot of creative work going on in [the podcast] community right now.”
Spiegel and Miller hope their show will continue to evolve as the season goes on. They want it to be both conversational and scripted, but are interested to see how the show will change.
“How you conceptualize your relationship with your thoughts, that’s something that most people haven’t even thought about,” Spiegal says. “What we are trying to do is clear the lens with the hope that that will give options to people.”