Podcast- n. a digital audio or video file or recording, usually part of a themed series, that can be downloaded from a website to a media player or computer. (Dictionary.com)

Podcasts are all the rage these days. Deservedly so. Who doesn’t love a good story that takes you on an emotional and intellectual adventure on your boring commute to work? Thanks to technology, we’re able to listen to educational and entertaining soundbites of basically any topic your heart desires.

So what makes audio storytelling so engaging? What is happening in our brains as we listen?

“A good story is a good story from the brain's perspective, whether it's audio or video or text,” says Paul Zak, the director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University. It activates the brain the same way.

By monitoring blood flow to different parts of the brain, researchers were able to see the complex ways that people experience words in stories. Figure c, below, shows the brains of three different people experiencing the same story. You can also play around in this brain viewer to see what areas of the brain certain words triggered. Credit: Jack L. Gallant/Gallant Lab at UC Berkeley, nytimes.

You may think that people who listen to narrations of a passage will be less engaged and therefore more likely to be distracted and daydream than those who read the same book out loud or silently to themselves, and there have been studies to support you. However, anyone who has become obsessed with podcasts will tell you that audio can be much more than narration. As we listen, we constantly form images and scenes in our heads to fill in the blanks in the text. As there is no physical book or symbols or words to visually process and take up our visual working memory, our minds are free to create and imagine. With each word or idea we hear, we activate different parts of our brain that store memories relating to that word or idea. For example, the word “dog” may prompt you to think about how a dog looks, how the fur feels, your neighbor’s dog that bit you when you were little and scarred you for ever. Those specific networks in your brain are activated and new connections are forming as you listen. If you were to go through an MRI, you would see a kaleidoscope of activation lighting up in different parts of the brain with every passing word or idea. An original movie montage of thoughts and images would play through your mind.

Audio storytelling allows people to create their own versions of characters and scenes. Differing from looking at a page, listening forces your brain to process the information at the pace it is played. You can’t go back to reread and so must extract meaning at a quicker pace. Furthermore, as your brain is constantly making predictions on what will happen next in the story, hearing the voices, tone, and rhythm gives you more clues to make stronger predictions. With each incorrect or correct prediction, your brain elicits a stronger emotional response. The process results in a much more stimulating experience.

NPR’s Generation Listen designs listening parties in which a group of friends come together to enjoy a curated selection of podcasts. Think movie night but with podcasts. Imagine a room filled with kaleidoscopic minds lighting up all at once. Completely different networks activating and changing. Thought processes flowing. Every person’s experience would be slightly different. Neighbors may even mirror each other's emotional response. After the podcast, listeners would come together to share and explore the different variations in their experiences, adding onto your own. To take this concept even further, imagine what a listening party would be like with more universal access to VR. With Google’s new Tilt brush, imagine being in a room filled with different artists each drawing out their own mental realities as the auditory narration unfolds. Mind blown!

Photo Credit: Digital Trends

We live in a world oversaturated with media and entertainment options all vying for your attention. While reading a physical book may take up too much of our mental capacity, podcasts may provide a solid middle-ground where we are able to multitask and bring the story along with us. However, as podcasts become increasingly popular and accessible, we may want to explore even more ways to leverage the medium of audio to deliver the best creative and branded content to listeners.

Podcasts are more than just an auditory experience. They have the potential to become the most immersive adventure of the mind in which we are each able to take part in.

So take a listen and activate your mind! Here are two places to start: NPR & Gimlet

Dilys Zhu, @dilyszhuMSD Intern