Podcasts Are Eating Our Brains

Why are we filling all silences with content?

I used to be subscribed to about 25 podcasts. Some of them caught me up on politics, others explored philosophical ideas, still others covered technology.

Now I’m down to five, because I realized I was smothering my own creativity. The same thing might be happening to you.

Don’t get my wrong, the revivification of the ancient oral tradition through podcasting is a good thing. It has boosted the bioavailability of high-quality information, especially for blue-collar workers who listen to such programs while operating cranes, trucks, and working on factory floors.

But I noticed a problem with my own consumption of podcasts. Often, I chose to click the play button during transition times in the day — walking, driving, running errands, etc. This seemed harmless enough, and it made me feel that I was squeezing more value out of ‘dead time’ in my calendar.

But in truth this habit of mainlining educational audio into every crack of my day was suffocating my own ability to think clearly and stumble into creative epiphanies. It was inhibiting my default mode network in my brain. I started to feel controlled by the dopamine rush of external stimuli and I didn’t like it.

Are podcasts your drug of choice?

Alcoholics drink for many reasons, but some research suggests that many use it as a coping mechanism for meaninglessness and depression. The warm buzz of alcohol makes the mundaneness of life more tolerable to bear.

Are you using podcasts in the same way? Are you pushing podcasts into our ears so you don’t have to bear the burden of facing life plainly as it comes? To some degree, that is what I was up to. I was trying to layer the musings of others on top of my own.

Sure, it feels ‘productive’ in the moment to flick on the episode of Rogan with that scientist you’ve been meaning to hear from.

If also seems like you’re happy when you’re drunk.

But then the next morning we wake up to the head pangs of a handover. The equivalent consequence of filling your head with the audio thoughts of others is that you’re leaving no nooks for your own original thoughts to sprout.

There are Better Uses Of Mind

‘Have a breakthrough’ can’t be added to a to-do list.

Insights occur on their own schedule, in the shower, on runs, in the car, while doing the dishes. The mind needs time to synthesize its environment and send epiphanies up the chain into conscious awareness. This can’t occur while getting things done, and it can’t happen if you’re filling up your empty time with content.

In our achievement focused world, wandering, relaxation, sleep, and stillness are all to be minimized to make room for productivity and task completion. A switch flipped for me when I committed to the notion that thinking is work.

The way I’ve started to think about balancing my deep thinking time and my learning/podcast time is by stacking ‘uses of mind’ from most to least valuable.

While the above stack is by no means the right stack for everyone, the concept of rank ordering stimuli you’re feeding your mind is a good starting place for choosing which activities you want to unwind (such as certain podcasts).

I placed uninterrupted clear thinking at the top of this stack. This is what I consider to be the best usage of my mind at any given time, as I am in a job (founder/CEO) where judgement and strategy decisions are of immense importance.

Just below that I placed active learning, such as taking an online course or intentionally reading something meaty. While listening to a podcast certainly CAN be classified as active learning depending on your focus, more often than not I was just playing them in the background not fully engaged. The void I’m filling there could have otherwise been filled by deep thinking, or even distracted thinking for that matter.

Make room for your own mental voice

Once you’ve figured out what uses of mind are ‘highest and best uses’ in your own life, think about which lesser-value activities are filling the time that you could otherwise be investing well. For you, it might be podcasts, but perhaps your vice is social media scrolling or something else.

You’ll find that at first this will be tough, because your brain likely won’t release dopamine while performing the high-value activities right away. High-value activities tend to bring some short term pain after all (gym, budgets, etc).

Over time though, your mind will begin to appreciate the returns from focused thought. This in turn will lead to your brain anticipating those returns, and releasing dopamine in concordance with those activities. That right there, is the virtue cycle that will germinate an endless stream of unique ideas and creative breakthroughs totally authentic to you.