Things I Feed My Brain: Podcast Edition

Brain illustration filled with symbols of nature and outer space.
Image by John Hain from Pixabay

Let’s dispense with the more bloggy blog posts for a moment, as they’re turning out a touch more maudlin than I’d like. Rather than focus on brain output, I’m going to focus on brain input instead.

I only started listening to podcasts earlier this year, spurred by the depressing realization that there wasn’t much going on in my head that wasn’t work related. If you think that sounds boring, you’re absolutely right. What happened to all the things that used to fill me with wonder? You know, the things that actually make life a worthwhile endeavor? Or, at least, that make me a semi-competent conversationalist at a party? (I wouldn’t have talked to me at the time.)

Truth is, I let them fade away while pursuing survival. But there’s always space to be found in your life if you really want it. So I went on a podcast-subscribing bender, intent on feeding my brain something more than the processed bullshit it was already filled with.

Linguistic deep dives? Check. Cultural analysis? Check. Critiques of neoliberal politics? Checkity-check-check.

Here’s a brief list of the podcasts I’ve found most interesting over the past several months, just in case your brain diet needs an overhaul, too.

Sean Carroll’s Mindscape

Logo for Sean Carroll's Mindscape podcast.

Sean Carroll is a theoretical physicist at Caltech, but don’t let that scare you away. While Carroll does sometimes dive into intense sciencey stuff (he’s a proponent of the mind-bending “many worlds” theory), his show explores a wide variety of topics with guests that are academics and experts in their field. Some of his guests are even Seth MacFarlane (okay, that was one time).

From “Humanity, Biology, and What Makes Us Good” to “Promise and Challenge of Democracy” to “Gods and Robots in Ancient Mythology,” there’s an intellectually robust something for everyone here.

Favorite episode (so far): #62 – Tight and Loose Societies and People. If you’re struggling to understand the rise of far-right movements around the world, this episode dives into the psychology of what makes some cultures authoritarian and others more open. To that end, episode #66, Partisan Polarization and the Urban/Rural Divide, also dives into political psychology and the “strict father” morality that undergirds political conservatism.


Logo for the Framelab podcast.

Speaking of the “strict father” model, UC Berkeley cognitive linguist George Lakoff is its foremost expert. Lakoff is famous for analyzing how the use “framing” in political discourse manipulates the public’s perception of an issue. As he notes in his book, Don’t Think of an Elephant, Republicans are masters at framing issues and controlling the conversation, and it’s this mastery that’s lead to their ascendance over the last few decades.

In Framelab, Lakoff and his co-host Gil Durán, a former journalist and Democratic press advisor, explore how framing is used to control narratives in today’s political climate. My only gripe is that show isn’t updated nearly enough (nearly nine months lapsed between the two latest episodes). But when a new episode is released, you best believe I greedily gobble it up.

Favorite episode (so far): #16, probably because it’s the first I ever listened to. That, and it discusses how congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is one of the few Democrats who are actually skilled at using framing as a rhetorical device. She’s not only adept at creating her own frames, but she avoids “activating” Republican frames. Personally, I think this demonstrates how bright she really is, despite all the rightwing propganda to the contrary (itself a frame job).

Lexicon Valley

Logo for the Lexicon Valley podcast.

Speaking of linguist-helmed shows, John McWhorter of Columbia University hosts the excellent Lexicon Valley podcast, which focuses on the intersection of society and language. From taboo words to racially-charged language to the politics of what makes something a dialect instead of a language, McWhorter covers a ton of intriguing sociolinguistic territory.

Favorite episode (so far):Can Climate Influence Language?” There isn’t an episode I dislike, but I particularly like this one for its “huh?” factor. It demonstrates how McWhorter travels beyond typical language curiosities and asks questions one wouldn’t even think to ask in the first place. That’s the good mind fuckery I’m here for.

Deconstructed and Intercepted

Combined logos for the Deconstructed and Intercepted podcasts.

I couldn’t choose between The Intercept‘s two excellent podcasts—and, quite frankly, I don’t see why I should have to. If you don’t know it, The Intercept is an independent source of “fearless, adversarial” journalism, which is an understatement. The organization’s co-founder, Glenn Greenwald, is most known for his reporting on the Edward Snowden leaks and NSA surveillance.

Deconstructed, hosted by Mehdi Hasan, and Intercepted, hosted by Jeremy Scahill, offer potent critiques of neoliberal politics, media propaganda, and U.S. foreign policy. Both shows feature an impressive guest roster, including Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy, Naomi Klein, AOC—and a host of politicians who are confronted with questions that are actually challenging (for once).

Favorite episode (so far): Rather than give you something specific, look into Intercepted’s episodes about Venezuela earlier this year as an example of the penetrating journalism featured on both shows. Where mainstream reporting’s memory is (purposely) short and sound bite-driven, The Intercept‘s reporting has a long memory—one that recalls the heinous track record of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America, its long-term systemic consequences that are still in play today, and the human cost.

Bonus Episode

Before you go, I’m going to recommend a single episode from, yes, another language-focused show. “The World in Words” is a pretty solid podcast, but is similar enough to Lexicon Valley that it didn’t need its own entry.

The World in Words podcast logo.

Instead, I’ll point you to this episode, The sci-fi of another language, because it made me think about what happens to stories when you try to move them from their cultural context to another culture. In this case, that’s Chinese science fiction translated for American audiences. What’s lost? What happens to the secret symbolism that Chinese writers have to use in order to fly under their government’s radar?

It’s interesting stuff, and it makes you wonder. And rediscovering wonder, my friends, is exactly why I dove into this podcast adventure in the first place.

Kelly Joi Phelan
A girl is no one.

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