If you love podcasts, you know how riveting they can be. A good audio story can immerse you in a different world, transform you into a detective, or help you relate to news or information in a more meaningful way.
Since podcasts are usually free and generally educational, many people listen as often as possible. You can tune in while you exercise, get ready in the morning, commute, work, cook, eat, clean, walk, get ready for bed, and even sleep. Some listeners even speed the sound up to one-and-a-half or double time so they can squeeze more podcasts into a day.
But binge listening to podcasts may not be the best idea, especially on the job. In excess, podcasts can distract you from your work and social connections and even impede your ability to learn and remember. Keep reading to dig in to the research about what happens in your brain when you listen to podcasts and discover the best way to enjoy your favorite podcasts with no downsides.
Listening while you work
In a 2016 survey, 14 percent of podcast listeners said they listen to podcasts at work. And Spotify data suggests even more people now listen on the job. Podcast listening peaks mid-day, with long-form and niche shows getting the most listens during work hours.
But listening to podcasts while you try to do something else can be a serious productivity killer. Podcasts such as Serial and Radiolab are designed to absorb and engage you. They use sound effects and multiple characters’ voices to immerse you and keep you emotionally aroused.
Your brain on podcasts
Your brain is five times more active when listening to an audio story than when listening to a list of random facts. The parts of the brain that process sound and language activate, as do the parts that process sensory information and motor activity. For example, when a character in a story walks through a factory, the regions of your brain that process sight, sense, and motor activity light up as though you’re walking through the factory too.
Audio stories are designed to stress you out. Storytellers use tension to make you empathize with characters and care about their fates. Your body releases the hormones cortisol, dopamine, and oxytocin in response to the rising action, climax, and resolution. Also, your brain must build the imagery of the story just as you do when you read. But unlike when you read, you must keep up with the pace of the show.
Bottom line? Podcasts are anything but relaxing for your brain. And while it’s good for the brain to work hard, it’s not so good for the brain to multitask. Research suggests multitasking is mentally taxing and performance suffers when people try to do two or more things at once.
Juggling multiple tasks is especially damaging when it comes to creative work. But listening to podcasts may slow you down even if your work isn’t mentally demanding. Performance on purely physical tasks also falters when your brain works hard. For instance, in a study elite rowers’ ability to row (on a rowing machine) significantly declined when they were asked to perform a mental task at the same time.
And that’s not the only problem with filling every silent moment of the day with podcasts. By listening to episode after episode of your favorite show, you may not give your mind enough downtime to absorb and synthesize what you learn. Your brain and nervous system need quiet time to operate at their best.
Silence is golden
Silence is rejuvenating for both the body and brain. When scientists inserted a two-minute pause into a piece of music in one study, listeners’ heart rates and blood pressure dropped during the silence even more than while listening to relaxing music.
In a study of mice, two hours of silence per day increased the growth of new, functioning neurons in the hippocampus, the part of the brain related to senses and memory formation. Imke Kirste, the lead researcher of the study, suggested that silence may someday be used to treat conditions such as dementia and depression if the same results are found in humans.
Plus, it’s not just silence that’s beneficial for the brain; it’s rest. Downtime replenishes the brain’s ability to focus and be creative. It’s essential for thinking deeply, performing well, and creating lasting memories. Most of us are deluged with data and could benefit from more breaks.
The brain doesn’t go to sleep when we stop concentrating on something. It goes into its default mode where it gathers and processes information and self reflects. If you deny the brain its downtime, you may feel anxious and fatigued, and you may inhibit your ability to learn, remember, and perform at your best.
The best way to enjoy podcasts
Of course, you don’t need to give up on podcasts. They’re absorbing and enjoyable, and a good audio story or interview can help take you away from the stresses of daily life. Podcasts may also help you connect with others if you discuss them with friends and colleagues. Plus, because podcasts are so engaging, they may be just the thing to keep your brain healthy and alert during extremely monotonous tasks, such as commuting.
Commuters’ intelligence and memory deteriorate when they drive long distances on a daily basis, according to a study of 500,000 daily drivers. Boredom is one of the probable culprits. Listening to podcasts may be a great way to stay awake and mentally stimulated on the road.
You’ll get more done and feel calmer if you save your podcasts for non-work hours. And next time you finish a good podcast, instead of rushing to the next one, take a pause. Reflect on what you learned, write down your thoughts about it, or simply enjoy the silence. Your brain and nervous system will appreciate the rest, and you’ll probably remember the podcast better tomorrow.