What was your introduction to podcasts? When I was in undergrad, a friend of mine told us we could download This American Life episodes to our phones so we could listen to David Sedaris’ Billie Holiday impression on demand, and our lives were changed. Since then, podcasts have an ubiquitous part of daily life for many, they help pass the time during commutes, chores and busy work. And they’re great! They teach us about so much and build worlds and make us laugh. But is it possible to have too much of a good thing?
Two high profile articles have recently delved into our collective podcast listening habits. The Cut looked at the side effects of the quantity of podcasts consumed, while Buzzfeed focused on “podfasters,” people who listen to podcasts at super speed.
In her article on The Cut, writer Sirena Bergman wonders if her 35 hours a week podcast habit is somehow draining her mental energy.
[Podcasts] keep my brain in a state of heightened concentration. Before I discovered podcasts, I spent most of my alone time listening to music, which would lead my mind to happily wander. With podcasts, on the other hand, I feel like I’m in a constant state of concentration. While there is no specific research into the neurological distinctions between listening to music and listening to stories, from my experience, the latter is much more likely to be all-consuming. When I’m listening to a podcast, I’m focused only on what I’m listening to, rather than using it as a jumping-off point to daydream or ponder new ideas.
After interviewing a variety of scientists and psychologists, it seems that consuming that many podcasts isn’t bad…but it’s not always good. When you listen to that amount of podcasts, odds are you’re giving up time you used to spend in total silence. And while you may be doing other things or not actively focusing on the podcast you’re listening to, they still make your “brain hum.” She finds that as with so many things, the benefits or detriments depend on the individual.
“Some people do do better with constant background stimuli, while for other people it can be a cognitive hindrance,” said Dr. Steve Schlozman. One common positive is that podcasts also provide a social benefit, you’re able to connect with your peers over touchstones like Serial and The Read.
The Buzzfeed article chats to podcast super listeners, folks who listen to podcasts at lightning speed, consuming up to 50 podcasts a week, significantly more than the average person’s five. Their reasons for listening at such high speeds vary; they’re catching up on back catalogs, trying to challenge their minds and they’re “completists” who want to get to finish everything.
So back to the essential question, is this habit bad? Yes and no. Listening at higher speeds can actually work out ear muscles.
In fact, according to behavioral neuroscientist Stephen Porges, because recordings played at higher speeds are at a higher pitch, they are actually easier to hear. Low-frequency noises, like street noise, vacuum cleaners, or airplanes, get in the way of our understanding of people talking; by playing podcasts at a higher speed, the listener is creating a greater acoustic differentiation between the words and lower-frequency background noises.
Although, Neuroscientist Uri Hassan, cautions, “Your brain responses become slower when I speak slowly, and brain responses become faster when I speak faster.” But, “it really breaks down” at 2x and 3x.
While it is comforting to know that furiously listening to a ton of podcasts isn’t doing major damage, it appears that the key takeaway—as is for many things—is moderation.
What are your podcast listening habits?