Invisible podcasts about invisible things: a visible review of Invisibilia

According to NPR’s website, Invisibilia “explores the intangible forces that shape human behavior – things like ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions.” Laura Miller and Alix Spiegel are the voices behind the podcast and they cover things ranging from entanglement and empathy to fear to expectations. So Invisibilia is a podcast about stuff we can’t see. And considering that podcasts are pretty much a thing we can’t physically see, it’s kind of perfect.

quantum-entanglement1[1]I think the topics covered in Invisibilia surprisingly lend themselves really well to nat sound. In the first half of the story Entanglement about the woman with synesthesia Miller and Spiegel included busy nat sound of supermarkets and streets to show how it might overwhelm the woman. The nat sound of the daughter’s graduation was really powerful and helped to show the significance of the woman attending her daughter’s graduation despite the physical toll it might have on her. Even in the beginning when they introduced the concept of quantum entanglement, which wouldn’t produce any audible sound, they managed to incorporate nat sound by playing the beep the machine makes when the photons become successfully entangled. The nat sound of Maria Bamford in the end of the podcast was super annoying.

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The voice of the hosts are clear and engaging. They speak slowly, especially when explaining complicated ideas, but are also animated enough to keep people listening. Their tones express just enough feeling to portray the emotional complexity of the story, without being too emotional.

I think transitions between the different sections of stories could be a little smoother. I liked what they did with the transition between quantum entanglement, synesthesia and universal empathy but they didn’t really connect these things strongly enough. The introduction did a really good job of establishing a topic and describing it in a really interesting, clear and engaging way. But there were times when I didn’t really understand the jumps they made. It also took a long time for them to explain that the woman’s synesthesia was caused by actually seeing someone experiencing a feeling, not just from the feeling happening. I think this was a crucial piece of information to understand her story. And even once it was established it wasn’t very firmly established. Still, I like how they move from a super complex scientific concept, to one particular woman’s experience with a form of empathy or “entanglement” to the idea that, to some extent, we ALL experience a form of this. I think the second to last part was really important to drive the story home and make it relatable. I didn’t particularly like the way the podcast ended. I think they could have done a much better job tying everything together. Maybe they could have ended on the more universal note. Or they could have tied Bamford’s “entanglement” with her mother with the similarities to the mother and daughter in the first half of the podcast.

Miller and Spiegel incorporate many different strong voices into their stories but sometimes it’s hard to tell who is talking. Other than that I think they were really able to balance the piece with expert voices, voices of people directly involved and voices of regular people. In Entanglement, the part where the daughter is talking about her mother and you can hear that she is crying was extremely moving. Even though the part about Maria Bamford and entanglement between mother and daughter was pretty annoying, it was interesting to see how on point Bamford’s imitation of her mother was and how her mom reacts to her comedy.

Miller and Spiegel show a lot of personality with really nice descriptions and a lot of well-placed humor. They also are very transparent about the reporting process, even describing the drive to one of their sources houses. I also think that the idea of taking these feelings and experiences that we can’t physically see and making them visible just with sounds is a really cool concept. Overall I was engaged with the story and I like the direction they took it in. I have a pretty low attention span so the fact that I was able to listen to their podcasts straight through is impressive.

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