It鈥檚 hard enough to try to explain things in the world that we can see, but journalists Hanna Rosin and Alix Spiegel have taken on the additional challenge of trying to explain things we can鈥檛 see. Their NPR podcastInvisibilia, which just finished its fourth season, delves into the 鈥渋nvisible forces that shape human behavior.鈥 In it, Rosin and Spiegel explore all the things that make us imperfectly human 鈥 emotions, thoughts, societal expectations, cultural norms, and more 鈥 and bring them to life in equal parts science and story. It may be impossible to see the inner workings of our minds, but Invisibilia is as good of an attempt as any.

invisibilia podcast art

In each episode, Rosin and Spiegel expertly blend these abstract concepts with profiles of real people. Says Rosin, 鈥淲e read a lot of human behavior and social psychology research to stay on top of the latest trends and interesting ideas.鈥 Past seasons have featured powerful tales about a completely blind man who defied expectations by teaching himself to 鈥渟ee鈥 via echolocation (the method of locating objects by reflected sound), the first all-female debate team in Rwanda who practiced acting confident until they actually started feeling it, and an anthropologist who discovered a new intense emotion (described as 鈥渉igh voltage鈥 running through your body) while spending time with a remote tribe of headhunters.

Season four dives into a number of timely concepts such as the flexible constructs of truth and reality, whether we can truly break free from a history of a certain pattern of behavior, and how reality TV can help shift social norms. There鈥檚 an episode, 鈥The Callout,鈥 discussing sexual abuse and the moral codes that both victims and assaulters are held to, which feels particularly relevant in the current climate of #MeToo.

It鈥檚 no coincidence that the episodes feel inspired by recent headlines. 鈥淚t鈥檚 hard not to notice how polarized the country is, how strongly we are drifting toward opposing extremes. In that kind of situation, a gray area is an uncomfortable place to be. So yes, the theme for this season comes directly out of current events. We decided to look at how the stories we tell ourselves lock us into these rigid positions. And then see what it鈥檚 like for people 鈥 and countries 鈥 to live outside those narratives,鈥 says Rosin. 鈥淎lso, the news is offering us a lot of rich material these days, so we look at countries influencing each other鈥檚 politics through stories, and how one community treats sexual abusers.鈥

Hanna Rosin Alix Spiegel Invisibilia hosts

In the course of their work (each episode can take up to four months to put together), both Rosin and Spiegel have done some unusual things in the name of investigative journalism. 鈥淟ast season, Alix made one of our producers, Yowei Shaw, feed a bear from her lips. Weird. Also dangerous,鈥 says Rosin. 鈥淭his season, Yowei knocked on many doors in Taiwan asking about a spy. I went to some hardcore music shows and squatted near the mosh pit while people punched and kicked 鈥 though my nose isn鈥檛 broken. Also, I jumped out of a plane.鈥

And listeners aren鈥檛 the only ones who can learn surprising things about the world and themselves. Rosin admits, 鈥淚 learned that I was absolutely terrified of heights to a degree I hadn鈥檛 quite appreciated, before jumping out of an airplane in the name of鈥 art.鈥 Spiegel adds, 鈥淚 learned 鈥 through painful experience 鈥 about all the things I myself cannot see. In terms of telling a story and being a human in the world.鈥 If there鈥檚 one lesson weaved throughout this season鈥檚 six episodes it鈥檚 that the only thing consistent about human behavior is that it鈥檚 predictably inconsistent.

As for a Season five? The duo says, 鈥淵ES!!! We have lots and lots of ideas brewing.鈥

For a mind trip in the best kind of way, give Invisibilia a listen. If you need a starting point, try some of Spiegel鈥檚 favorite episodes: 鈥The New Norm,鈥 鈥How to Become Batman,鈥 鈥The Secret History of Thoughts,鈥 and 鈥The Other Real World.鈥

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(Image via Sara Wong and photo via Stephen Voss/NPR)