According to data from Podcasthosting.org, 55% of Americans have listened to at least one episode of a podcast, and about 37% say they listen to a podcast at least every month. But have you ever considered exactly what’s going on in your mind as you listen to a podcast?
"Your brain is a complex organ," explains materials scientist and engineer Titi Shodiya, who hosts the podcast Dope Labs alongside molecular biologist Zakiya Whatley. "At any given moment, various parts of your brain are firing off different messages." Scientifically speaking, consuming information can activate your mesolimbic pathway, also known as the "reward pathway," releasing dopamine throughout the brain. This "feel-good" chemical is responsible for pleasure and lighting up your mind's reward centers.
So how can listening to podcasts benefit your brain? A 2016 study out of UC Berkeley concluded that listening to narrative stories (much like podcasts) can stimulate multiple parts of your brain — so whether it's that adrenaline rush you get from true crime podcasts or a comedy podcast that boosts your endorphins, there's truly something out there for everyone. We asked Titi and Zakiya to help break down, in layman's terms, exactly how listening to different types of podcasts can affect your brain.
What happens to your brain when you're listening to a meditation podcast?
In today's turbulent times, turning on a meditation podcast can help you power down your mind. That’s because soothing meditation can activate your brain stem, thalamus and auditory cortex. As a result, your brain releases a chemical called oxytocin. Produced by your pituitary gland and known as the "love hormone," it's often associated with empathy, trust and building relationships. According to Medical News Today, studies show that oxytocin can reduce stress and anxiety. The relaxing sounds of nature, music or white noise can help drown out undesirable background sounds, making meditation podcasts perfect for unwinding, or even bedtime. "And that's not all meditation podcasts are good for," adds Titi. "Listening to soothing sounds can also increase focus and productivity."
What happens to your brain when you're listening to true crime?
If you’re seeking something more stimulating, tune into true crime. There’s a scientific reason why fans of the genre keep coming back for more. Your brain interprets particularly suspenseful information through the medulla oblongata, which produces adrenaline. This stress-inducing chemical triggers your "fight or flight" response. The rush you might get from listening to true crime also activates your pituitary gland, releasing endorphins. Endorphins affect your brain similarly to opioids, meaning they can be slightly addictive. This type of podcast can also lead to the production of dopamine and serotonin. "Dopamine and serotonin are both feel-good chemicals, so it gives you the feeling of 'I'm terrified — but I like it,'" explains Titi.
What happens to your brain when you're listening to a comedy podcast?
It turns out that laughter actually is the best medicine. When your brain consumes chuckle-worthy content, it activates your frontal lobe and cerebral cortex. Your frontal lobe is what "decodes" the joke to determine whether it's funny or not. When you think something is funny, your frontal lobe sends that message to your cerebral cortex, which is what triggers things like laughter, surprise and delight. Humor also lowers levels of cortisol, meaning that it's ideal for stress reduction.
If you’re not sure where to get your comedy podcast fix, Zakiya and Titi suggest tuning in to The Read; they also can’t get enough of a recent episode of The Michelle Obama Podcast, featuring funnyman Conan O’Brien where the former FLOTUS talks with the comedian about the importance of laughing off even the most stressful moments — like when Barack drove Michelle so crazy that she threw her engagement ring across the room (but she threw it off in a way that she'd know where to find it later, of course!).
Ready to start reaping the brain benefits of listening to podcasts? Check out our recommendations for the best podcasts to listen to in 2020.
Dope Labs is a podcast that shows how everything on your news feed intersects with science, and seeks to make STEM more accessible to communities of color. Look for new releases every other week on Spotify.
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