Hearing voices in one’s head is historically a sign of insanity. But for me, it’s the opposite.
Over the past decade, podcasts have taken on an increasingly dominant role in my daily routine, to the point where it almost feels wrong when there isn’t an extra voice or two being piped directly into my brain.
Frankly, I’m an addict. I listen to podcasts while feeding my cats and while cooking; while doing the dishes and returning clothes in exchange for store credit; while exercising, commuting, flying, and, on rare occasions, while doing absolutely nothing at all. Thanks to podcasts, I’m never alone. An IV drip to news and opinions and (one-sided) friendships is always at the ready. I’m not alone in my outsize listening habit either. Just a hair over half of all Americans—144 million—have tuned in to at least one podcast before, but according to Nielsen, 16 million of us are “avid fans.” Business is booming, with enough well-funded networks competing against each other to ensure that we chatter-addled avids have more listening material than we could get through in a lifetime.
But lately it feels like the fear of missing out on whatever’s new in my queue has left me missing out on something else entirely.
As far as I know, scientists have not conducted tests about the long-term effects of sustained exposure to podcasts. I don’t need statistics, though, to fuel my suspicions that walking around listening to other people’s voices all the time, and allowing that to become my default cognitive setting, has probably warped my way of thinking and sapped some creativity. How could the constant stream of content not train me to be a more passive thinker, a spectator of life? Listening to other people’s ideas all the time creates a buffer that might be keeping my own ideas submerged in my subconscious. Almost everything I think while mainlining Doughboys or The Dollop or The Daily is a surface-level reaction to whatever I’ve just heard. There had to be a cumulative effect of my brain functioning like a YouTube comments section.
Luckily, there was an easy way to find out whether being at Peak Podcast has taken a negative toll. All I had to do was hang up my headphones for a while. It was time for me to listen to something else: nothing.
The plan was to go on a two-week podcast fast. Two weeks may sound like laughably little time for such an experiment, but I was absolutely dreading it at the outset. It would be the longest I’d gone without a fix in nearly 10 years. Even on my honeymoon, I still listened to podcasts during solo outdoor runs. Two weeks where the only voice in my head was my own would trigger a seismic recalibration of my equilibrium. On the night before beginning the experiment, I listened to one last podcast as I fell off to sleep. When I awoke, it would be as though the entire medium were merely a dream.
The sound of silence (and anxiety)
The first thing I noticed is what enforced, sustained quiet sounds like, as an entity. Working from home in the morning, during the hours when my daily tasks are most conducive to digesting podcasts, I felt the weight of unwanted quiet suffusing the air with stillness, a great auditory absence. Every minor rustle from the courtyard outside my window was an event. What could it be? Probably nothing! I quickly found myself talking to my cats (more so than usual), just to put the noise of words into the room. As I transitioned into the kind of heavy-lifting mode of work in which I definitely wouldn’t be listening to podcasts, I tried not to guess who would be today’s guests on the shows I always listened to on Mondays, and what they would have to say about the latest developments in the ongoing political drama.
It wasn’t until a couple days of commuting had passed that I fully began to feel the contours of this particular strain of silence. I soaked in the sounds of the city—snatches of stoop-side conversation, the mechanical belch of busses lurching to a stop, unseen mystery birds competing with car radio Cardi B. Sometimes the sound in my head would be a recently heard tune caught in my mental mousetrap, doomed to an indefinite recursive loop. But more often than not, I found that walking around without other voices in my head left me tuned into the main feed of my psyche: worries.
As it turns out, I worry a lot. About everything! And while I have always known this is the case, I was shocked at how much of my commute time was spent dredging up fresh worries that burbled toward the surface. I worried about upcoming bills, body stuff, finite mortality, political turmoil, as-yet unfulfilled career goals, and what it meant that I didn’t visit my grandmother more often. None of these topics were new, but they came at me with a new ferocity, demanding scrutiny. Was this what I’d been blocking out by listening to podcasts all the time? Had I intentionally given my worries an ever-present cognitive hurdle to overcome? Maybe instead of listening to podcasts to block out the outside world, I’d been doing so to keep my interior thoughts locked within.
The good news is that after being left with one’s worries long enough, you sort of have no choice but to examine them. And once I started regularly examining my worries in NPR’s Fresh Air-length bursts, I usually landed on some sensible temporary acceptance of them. I couldn’t navigate all the vicissitudes of mortality just by being forced to sit with them a while, but I could consider them for exactly as long as it took to render them boring. When left to ponder your unfiltered worries long enough, eventually you move beyond them and to other thoughts—like “Maybe I should start a podcast.” (Kidding.)
Withdraw and the real world
Disappointingly, though, the hypothetical geyser of fresh ideas, breakthrough insights, and potential tweets I’d hoped for never materialized. I mean, occasionally some of those things squeaked through. I woke up one day with a couple thoughts that demanded to be jotted down immediately, something that hadn’t happened in a while, and then successfully pitched three new ideas during an all-hands meeting at work that day. But it wasn’t as though removing podcasts from my routine unclogged some creativity spigot within and delivered my most dynamic self. I was just as likely to walk around thinking about absolutely nothing as I was to land upon any revelation.
About a week in, I tried to trick myself into approximating a podcast. While going through my morning work routine, I put on my headphones and played the late-night talk show Desus and Mero, listening without watching. It took only a few minutes before I had to admit I was insulating myself in a podcast-y comfort zone by finding a way to hear familiar voices talk current events while I did other stuff. I exhaled deeply, turned off the show, and sat in resigned concentration with the headphones still in. The absence of passive cultural absorption was nagging at me. I missed all the biting banter about bad movies on How Did This Get Made? I wanted a temperature read about the Mueller report with competing hot takes from Chapo Trap House and the Pod Save America bros. I was itching to know where the hosts of Punch Up the Jam landed on the whole Lil Nas X phenomenon. It felt like I was stuck in between podcasts all the time, which is how it feels to kick any addiction.
Without actively deciding to do so, I kept the earbuds in as I worked that day, and felt weirdly comforted. Maybe on some level, I just liked the feel of wearing headphones. My ears were thoroughly accustomed to being plugged in most of the time, like a baby with its binky. Even without the sound of anyone’s voice bleeding through to engage my attention, my ears were full and so I still had a barrier between me and everything else.
Other people had a way of turning into obstacles when I walked around listening to podcasts, I started to realize. Moving through the world with just my own thoughts, I no longer weaved around and dodged those on the sidewalk who dared not go at exactly the optimum speed for my footpath. Or at least I did so more thoughtfully, anyway: a purposeful Frogger-ing. Although I had caught myself muttering out loud around my apartment way more, absently airing a narration of nothing, I was no longer huffing in irritation over undisciplined pedestrians. It was just a reflex, and one that always made me feel embarrassed, but it never seemed to happen during this experiment.
As much as I was interacting with the world more by opting out of podcasts, I was still blocking everything out in other ways. When my iPhone delivered its weekly screen time report, the news was grim. I had gone above the usual amount by 10% the first week and another 10% the second week. Apparently, I’d given myself a hall pass to luxuriate in the digital bliss of scrolling through Twitter to make up for the opinions I wasn’t receiving in auditory form. Would I continue spending more and more time on my phone, week after week, if I jettisoned podcasts from my life forever?
My new podcast regimen
Once the experiment ended, I was relived to cherrypick a surplus menu of primo options–the past fortnight’s very best–and catch up on all the color commentary I’d missed.
None of it seemed essential.
Comforting? Sure. Amusing or enlightening? Definitely. But unmissable? Not in the least.
Also, I was amazed at how much I’d gotten used to the relative quiet. I could easily have done another two weeks of podcast abstinence. During the time off, I’d almost forgotten what it felt like to have a constant churn of words to strain against when life demanded I focus up, or the petty annoyance of having to fast-forward through Squarespace ads—or, worse, being unable to do so in, say, a dishwashing situation.
The rhythm of a life spent listening to other people’s conversations quickly resumed, though. On the second day, I almost missed my subway stop because I was zoned out in a podcast reverie, but that proved to be an outlier moment, rather than the new normal.
In order to maintain my new connection with the outside world, I decided to implement two major changes to my audio existence. First, I would drastically Marie Kondo my podcast queue. It was way easier than doing so with my closet. I knew which podcasts I hadn’t really missed during those two weeks and scuttled them into digital oblivion. (Of course, unlike a shirt donated to charity, I could simply retrieve a discarded podcast at any time.) Second, I would take every other day off from my listening habit. It would be a way to bake some moderation into my routine, and ensure that I would stop and smell the roses—or rather, listen to the mystery birds chirping—every now and then.
Who knows whether having fewer voices in my head means I’ll hear more of what the world, and my own subconscious, has to say in the future. But I’ll definitely be listening.