Is Listening to Too Many Podcasts Unhealthy?

It took me a while to hop on the podcast train. What can I say, podcasts seemed boring. Why would I want to just listen to people chatter on for hours when my favorite music or audiobook was a mere swipe away? It was not until I was faced with a long road trip, 170 hours alone in a car, did I begin to embrace podcasts into my life.

After listening to over 100 hours of podcasts, I was hooked. TED Talks, Serial, The Moth, Radiolab, Pod Save America, S-Town, She Explores, the Dirtbag Diaries and so many more. All of a sudden, I had access to brilliant, stimulating conversations at my fingertips. Talk about amazing. So I listened… incessantly.

I listened while eating breakfast.

I listened while taking a shower.

I listened while driving my car.

I listened while hiking with my dog.

I listened while preparing dinner.

I listened while drafting out writing.

Essentially, any semi-transitional moment in my daily life was accompanied by an ever present tinny chatter emitting from my phone. I was listening to 4+ podcasts a day. And I thought it was great. I was watching less internet videos and finally wasting less time on social media. But I was distracting myself in another way.

I was using podcasts to fill the quiet voids of my mind. They were a way to ignore my own thoughts, challenges and emotions in favor of other, more lighthearted ones. I was using them as a distraction, much like YouTube or Facebook or Instagram. Sure, podcasts may seem a little more innocuous, but when you start binge-listening, you get the same outcome: mind mush that is incapable of tolerating quiet.

Over one-third of Americans listen to podcasts regularly. Podcasts, unlike their social media cousins, are generally perceived as a more intellectual form of entertainment. And perhaps, in some small way, they are. Your brain is allowed to buzz and process and concoct creative visions, much unlike the passive act of watching a video or scrolling through Facebook feeds. In a sense, they make you a little bit smarter.

In an episode of Freakonomics, scientists studied people’s brains in an MRI as they listened to The Moth Radio Hour—a show in which regular people tell incredible stories. The results showed that podcasts highly stimulate and engage our minds. Our brains work hard to process auditory story, lighting up in multiple areas. Podcasts make the mind active, which seems better than the inactivity it goes through when watching reruns on television. But have a constantly stimulated mind isn’t a great thing, either.

Podcasts don’t let our brains shut down; they throw them into high gear. There is no rest—you can imagine that it would be challenging to fall asleep with such active mind work going on. Podcasts are great at invigorating and activating. But most of our brains aren’t getting enough shut down time as is with the constant distraction and entertainment allure of technology. Our minds need quiet time, whether it is meditation or a nature walk. We’ve evolved to thrive in bouts of silence and boredom; to be alone with ourselves and think deep, creative thoughts. If you listen too fervently, podcasts can unwittingly impede this process.

When it comes down to it, there are much worse things you can do in life than listening to too many eye-opening podcasts. But because they seem like such a benign form of entertainment/education, there are those of us who will inevitably get carried away. Like any good thing, moderation is the secret. Make sure you are still allowing your brain swaths of time where it is not constantly externally stimulated. Sit in uncomfortable silence for a bit. Don’t think of it as a punishment. Think of it as a glorious window through which you can reconnect with yourself.

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