NPR’s Invisibilia & the power of thought

NPR's Invisibilia & the power of thought

Yesterday I was consumed by my thoughts—and not the good kind.

By 6 p.m. I felt so blah that all I wanted to do was go lie down and wallow in self-pity. (Productive, right?)

But then I remembered I’d been wanting to check out NPR’s newest podcast, Invisibilia, and decided if I was going to go hang out in bed, I might as well learn something. The first episode couldn’t have been more appropriate for my crappy mood. It was all about the power of our thoughts—particularly the negative ones—and how they affect us.

Invisibilia is Latin for “all the invisible things,” which is exactly what this podcast is about: the intangible forces that shape who we are and how we walk through life. Co-hosted by Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel, the first episode kicked off with responses from dozens of strangers on the street about what they were just thinking. And if you’ve ever caught yourself thinking something totally bizarre, self-destructive or morbid, you might find comfort in knowing just how common that really is.

Anyone who’s ever been consumed by dark thoughts has wondered, “Why can’t I stop thinking this way? What’s wrong with me?” And this first episode of Invisibilia shed some light on that by explaining three phases in the history of psychotherapy:

There’s the traditional Freudian thinking, which is that all of our thoughts have meaning and are tied to some deeper part of us. Which can be helpful if you never made a connection between a recurring thought and something from your past. But if there’s no obvious link, it can only exacerbate the “what’s wrong with me?” kind of thinking. (Which is what happened to one man profiled in the podcast when he began having seriously violent thoughts out of nowhere.)

Then cognitive behavioral therapy began to displace Freudian therapy by directly challenging negative thoughts—not accepting them at face value or taking them so seriously. Therapists who use this method don’t necessarily believe our thoughts are linked to who we are, and for anyone who is especially hard on themselves, this way of thinking can be a huge relief.

Mindful meditation is the most recent form of therapy of all. Instead of challenging negative thoughts, those who practice mindful meditation acknowledge the thoughts but don’t engage them. The idea is not to fight the bad thoughts but to simply let them float away.

It’s easy to see why, except for certain cases, Freudian therapy has slowly been replaced over time. Maybe those of us who are occasionally tortured by our thoughts place too much emphasis on them in the first place. Cognitive behavior therapy seems like a good and direct approach to addressing thoughts that are near the point of all-consuming, while mindful meditation seems like good practice to build into our everyday lives. After all, we can’t block out all the bad images that enter our minds, but we can decide to let them go.

Whether you’re a podcast listener or not (and until recently, I wasn’t), I highly recommend checking out Invisibilia. Not only does it cover the above, but it weaves in storytelling that’s totally addictive. My occasionally recurring sad thoughts were put into perspective big time when I learned the story of Martin Pistorius, a man who was trapped inside his own body for more than a dozen years and had only his thoughts to keep him company—or drive him to the brink of insanity. Pistorius—who went on to attend school for computer science, start a web design company and get married—wrote a book that I will be checking out very soon. And you can be sure I’m tuning in to the next episode of Invisibilia.

Have you listened to Invisibilia? What are some of you other favorite podcasts? (I’m looking for recommendations!)