The Best Mindfulness Podcasts of 2018

The Mindful Editors review this year’s top podcasts on the brain, emotions, and well-being.

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Here at Mindful, we love podcasts and trading our favorite episodes is our idea of fun watercooler chat. This definitely felt like the Year of the Podcast (again) and we hope it continues in 2019. There were so many great interviews this year and even full-length shows devoted to shining a light on the inner workings of the brain, the role emotions play in constructing our relationships (and in some cases, life trajectories), and research on how doctors and educators are integrating qualities like kindness and empathy into their work.

After hours of listening, we’ve pulled together a list of the standout mindful podcasts in 2018.

Podcasts About the Brain

How Our Personal Narratives Become Facts
Episode: Pt.I: Emotions / Pt.II: High Voltage, Invisibilia

This wonderful if offbeat podcast (its title is Latin for “invisible things”) fuses science with narrative storytelling. These episodes investigate psychologist Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett’s case that how we conceptualize (and deal with) emotions is totally backward: “Emotions aren’t a reaction to the world; they actually construct the world.” This is weighed against some true, truly weird stories: Traumatized by a car crash, a man sues who he crashed into—the parents of the child he killed (!). An anthropologist discovers a “new” emotion among a head-hunting tribe in the Philippines. And a woman struggles to find love, due to a seemingly involuntary reflex.

Neuroscience says it’s good to daydream, Quirks & Quarks

When we daydream, science finds, our brains are in the zone for problem-solving and creativity. Neuroscience professor emeritus Dr. Daniel Levitin had Sting compose music inside a brain scanner, and Sting’s brain activity shifted into “daydreaming mode,” the default mode network. This area of the brain, describes psychology professor Dr. Kalina Kristoff, shows “the sweet spot between order and chaos.” She says the ability to flexibly switch between a daydreaming mental mode and more constrained and analytical modes of thought can indicate a highly creative mind.

How to Tame Negative Thoughts
Why Is My Life So Hard? Freakonomics Radio

Psychology professors Tom Gilovich, of Cornell University, and Shai Davidai, of The New School for Social Research, here investigate humankind’s pessimistic tendencies: Why do we often think we have it worse in life than anyone else? And why is it so hard to practice gratitude consistently? Their “headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry” theory says we are biased to underestimate what helps and overestimate what hinders us. If we can learn to notice “the invisibles,” taken-for-granted things that boost spirits—like having coffee with a friend—we’ll feel happier, longer.

Why Our Judgement Fails Us
Here’s Why All Your Projects Are Always Late—and What to Do About It, Freakonomics Radio

Why do we procrastinate—and why, nevertheless, can we always convince ourselves that we won’t next time? Experts weigh in, from psychology and neuroscience to software design and New York City’s Second Avenue subway that took 50 years to start building. We fall victim to the planning fallacy, which involves our “optimism bias”—believing the grass is greener in the future—and the fact that most of us don’t love data integration. The key to more accurate expectations? “Use data instead of human judgment.” Artificial intelligence: 1; people: 0.

Podcasts About Relationships

The Kindness of Strangers
How Sarah Slean’s musical and philosophical evolution led her to Metaphysics, Q on CBC Radio

Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah Slean shares how she was practicing meditation one night while riding the subway home, when she felt a “very menacing presence” beside her: “This terrifying- looking human being with this harsh look in his eyes, like he was going to hurt me and enjoy it.” Instead of reacting to a natural spike of anxiety, Slean struck up a friendly conversation. Gradually, the stranger opened up to her about his hardships. Their brief chat ended in exchanging email addresses; years later, Slean would write a song (on her newest album, Metaphysics) that reflects the profound effect each had on the other.

A Prescription for Empathy
How Empathy Can Transform Healthcare, CBC’s The Current

For Dr. Brian Goldman, being told by the family of his elderly patient that his bedside manner was unfeeling kicked off a personal quest to be kinder, in his medical practice and his life. Along the way he met Erica, an empathic android, and learned about more compassionate treatments for dementia patients. He finds that while some people seem to be innately empathic, going through painful experiences can cause others to develop their empathy muscle: “If you have pain, use it, because it will make you stronger—and you’ll find your community.”

Healing Communities Through Conversation
The King of Tears series, Revisionist History

In this series, Malcolm Gladwell’s prodigious talents as both a free thinker and a storyteller are on display. Gladwell likes to look at things from oblique angles, the better to break us out of fixed ways of thinking and shed new light. A superb journalist, he explores and investigates by talking with people. In Episode 6, season 2, he travels to Nashville in a fascinating quest to account for the difficulties we have in bridging the cultural divide in America by contrasting country music and rock and roll: one pulls at the heartstrings, the other doesn’t go there much.

Empathy is Not a Soft Skill—It’s Essential
A neuroscientist explains: the need for ‘empathetic citizens’, The Guardian’s Science Weekly

“Empathy is really about emotional resonance,” says Francesca Happé, a researcher at King’s College London. It’s “the ability to feel with another person,” an underrated skill that our increasingly fractured societies need. In studying how children develop empathy (beginning as young as seven months), Professor Happé finds that if we want a more empathic society, “children need to experience a wide range of emotions,” safely, such as through the arts. This nurtures the capacity to recognize and relate to the same emotional states in others, including—most critically—others who seem unlike themselves.

Redefining Success for Boys, and the Next Generation
Ashanti Branch, The Educhange Podcast

In this episode, Ever Forward Club founder Ashanti Branch relates how neither excelling in school nor showing your emotions are considered cool for American boys. He also talks about his 100k Mask Challenge, which encourages young people and teachers to communicate with one another more authentically. An educator himself, Branch emphasizes the role of empathy in teachers to build constructive relationships with students: “If you care more about the subjects you’re teaching than the subjects who you’re teaching, there’s going to be a disconnect…. Connect a little bit more with your heart.” (For more on Branch’s work, see our feature “Is Your Life Designed For You?”)

Do We Create Neurological Tribes?
Friends share more than interests. Their brains are similar, too, Quirks & Quarks

Dr. Carolyn Parkinson, a psychological researcher at UCLA, led a study that interviewed 300 students to learn the degrees of friendship or distance they had to others within the group. Then, students watched an assortment of video clips while the researchers took fMRI scans of their brains. It turned out that how close the students were to one another could be predicted by the similarity of their neural responses to the videos. This leaves open the question of whether we gravitate toward others who already see and process the world similarly, or if we become friends first and, through unknown mechanisms, our mental patterns converge over time.

Podcasts About Self-Care

Navigating Mental Health
Tim Ferriss, Design Matters with Debbie Millman

His 4-hour-everything followers may be surprised to hear Tim Ferriss open up about his experience with depression and suicidal ideation while still a postgrad at Princeton University. But, just as with the more hackable areas of life, Ferriss has a straight-up view of exactly what the struggle is: “It’s very difficult to think your way out of things that you didn’t logically think your way into.” He shares some of his favorite ways to stay well, including: “curating” his social circle, a writing exercise for overcoming fears, and working out really, really hard. Another of his keys to maintain recovery? Daily meditation, as an opportunity for “observing your thoughts without getting tumbled by them.”

The Power of Human Connection
Leave a Message, Invisibilia

Let’s face it: Voicemail may not be long for this world. Technologies like email and texting have largely taken its place: They’re quicker and less intrusive. On the other hand, a 2016 study on the “cuddle hormone,” oxytocin, found that when we hear a loved one’s voice over the phone, our brain’s oxytocin response is almost the same as if we’d actually hugged them. Screenwriter Cord Jefferson considers “the power of the human voice, and what we lose when the voice goes away”—particularly if a family member’s life is cut short, glorifying the audible mementos in a voicemail inbox.

Unhook from Your Phone
You can’t stop checking your phone because Silicon Valley designed it that way, CBC Radio, Sunday Edition

Reporter Ira Basen digs deep into the “attention economy, where the biggest prize goes to those who can grab users’ attention and keep it the longest.” For Facebook, Snapchat, and the rest, your attention is what’s for sale. Basen journeys back to the dawning of “persuasive technology,” a term coined in the mid-1990s by Stanford behavior scientist B.J. Fogg. He taught tech pioneers how technology could supply beneficial tools for habit formation. But did it get out of hand? A lively debate ensues about who takes ultimate responsibility for the habits we form.

Compassion Fatigue and 24 Hours News
Is compassion fatigue inevitable in an age of 24-hour news? The Guardian

Elisa Gabbert prides herself on her awareness of goings-on in the world, but lately she has a case of “creeping, psychic exhaustion”: compassion fatigue, or secondary traumatic stress. Psychologist Charles Figley defined this in 1995 as “stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatized or suffering person.” STS commonly haunts first responders and other professional caregivers. But thanks to round-the-clock news cycles, many people now feel emotionally numbed. “What happens,” Gabbert asks, “when the world wants more empathy than we can give?” This episode samples thought-provoking theories on empathy and considers how we might respond to its limitations.