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Invisibilia: NPR's fascinating new podcast about the mysteries inside our heads

Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller, creators of the new show Invisibilia.
Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller, creators of the new show Invisibilia.
(John W. Poole/NPR)

On Friday, NPR debuts a new podcast and radio show: Invisibilia, a series about "the invisible forces that control human behavior."

Despite the tagline, the show has nothing to do with magic. These "invisible forces" are real things that exist inside our heads. The first episode (which you can listen to here) features a man suddenly plagued by violent impulses for seemingly no reason. Another person is trapped inside his own body, unable to communicate with the outside world for years.

The show, hosted by science reporters Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel and edited by Anne Gudenkauf, takes on these topics with a mix of intimacy and scientific inquisitiveness, a bit like the well-known shows they've previously worked on — Radiolab and This American Life, among others.

Over the course of the first season, they'll explore the power of expectations, the nature of anxiety and fear, and a number of other topics at the intersection of psychology, neuroscience, and the way we experience the world. I recently spoke with Miller and Spiegel to learn more about the show.

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Joseph Stromberg: Where did this show come from — what made the two of you decide to start it, and how did you arrive at this idea?

Alix Spiegel: I'd been a fan of Lulu's work for a long time, and we met about two years ago. I knew that she had all of these radio magic tricks that I wanted to learn. So when we met at a conference, I asked if she wanted to work on a story with me — one of the stories in the first episode, about dark thoughts.

Lulu Miller: In the course of about two minutes, she simultaneously told me the story about this man "S" struggling with a really profound situation — here's a man plagued by involuntary violent thoughts, who finds a seemingly radical way out of them — and shared this view she has about how culture informs the way we treat our thoughts.

It wasn't just a really interesting story, but a whole history of different sorts of thinking about what people's thoughts mean, according to different psychologists. It just fell out of her mouth in like 90 seconds, so when she asked if I wanted to work with her on it, I said of course.

It started with that story, and kind of just kept going from there. We did a few more stories together, and the theme of the show kind of came after the stories.

AS: We were both doing news reporting, and working on these sorts of stories on the side, and eventually we built up a body of work and decided that we wanted to create a podcast. At a certain point, we were trying to figure out what united all these stories, and we realized that we kept looking at all sorts of invisible forces that shape human behavior — the conceptual lenses through which we see the world.

JS: Can you tell me a bit more about that idea, and how it fits into the first episode about dark thoughts?

AS: Well, there's a basic question: how do you think of your relationship with your thoughts? Everybody has that relationship, but except for maybe some scientists and philosophers, nobody sits down and thinks about it. You just have your thoughts. You don't think about the ideology through which you're interpreting them.

But this ideology does make a big difference in terms of how you experience the world. For people who involuntarily have very dark thoughts, like in the first episode, they're very aware of it. And there are different ideologies — regarding whether we're responsible for our thoughts, or whether they just happen to us — and different ways of viewing thoughts can really help them.

A lot of our stories look at that sort of thing. We're looking, in a very intense way, at concepts that undergird everything and shape our experience of the world, but we don't necessarily think about.

JS: I realize you might not want to give away the whole season, but can you tell me a bit about the stories you'll explore this idea through? I saw that you're covering the story of Daniel Kish — a blind man who uses echolocation to see — for example.

LM: Well, with Daniel Kish, we're covering him, but we're hoping to do it in a very different way. He's part of our show on expectations, and the idea there is all the surprising ways that expectations can affect a person.

So in the story, he says that he's often described as superhuman and extraordinary, but argues that this is precisely wrong. He says that anyone can do what he's doing, and our amazement is precisely the problem — and in his words, is what imprisons other blind people. So we take his claim seriously, that if we all changed our expectations of what blind people could do, then we'd see them doing much more.

AS: He even makes a broader claim — that if we changed our expectations, blind people could come to see. Which is a crazy-sounding claim, but I think by the end of the program, it sounds plausible in a way that you never expected. That segment is actually going to air on This American Life this weekend.

Another story we're doing is about a woman named "S.M." as part of an episode on fear. She is one of few people in the world — maybe the only — who is biologically incapable of feeling fear. Every other emotion is fully intact, but her amygdala was decimated by a disease called Urbach–Wiethe disease. She's been studied by scientists for twenty years, but this is the first time that anyone will hear from her directly.

We also have a very interesting story on a woman who has a condition that makes it so that she physically feels what people around her do. So if you were sitting in a room with Lulu and I, and I reached out and touched Lulu, you'd physically feel it on you skin if you had this condition.

We're not doing these stories because these people are so unusual — we're doing them because they allow us to see and think about things that affect us all.

LM: In the case of that woman, for example, we go into the neurology and neuroscience of how that can happen, and she starts out as this extreme example. But as the show goes on, we go into all the ways that that's kind of happening, on a much lower level, to all of us.

AS: Basically, there are all these ways in which we're entangled with each another, and most of us aren't fully aware of it. One of the researchers we talk to says, "look, you conceptualize yourself as an individual — and that is kind of a delusion."

JS: It seems like you've featured a lot of people who are dealing with unusual, difficult conditions or situations. How do you balance the fact that you're having a very personal, intimate conversation with them, but that you're also going to broadcast it to thousands of listeners?

AS: Honestly, when I'm talking to somebody, I am not thinking about the audience — I'm just thinking about [the subject], and being present with them. And at first, they might be conscious of the broader audience, but as you move forward in the interview, it just becomes a conversation between two people, trying to understand each other.

And regardless, I think that as an interview, you have a basic responsibility to be kind to people. You don't look at them as a story. They're sharing things that are difficult and personal, but you look at the things you have in common with them.

But negotiating this can be very complicated. It's hard, and scary, for everybody, but you just do your best.

LM: Some of the people who are talking more sensitive things are actually eager to do so, in order to help all the people who are in similar situations but can't speak out. That was the case with "S." — who was dealing with involuntary dark thoughts. He didn't want attention for himself, but he's been through something that's so painful, and is shared by a shocking number of people.

So he did something incredibly brave. He stood up because he wanted to help people like him, and he put himself on the line for that.

Note: this interview has been condensed and edited.

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