We reached out to our Science Media Awards finalists with five questions about the experience of making their projects. Invisibilia is a finalist in the Audible Science category.
What inspired this story?
Observation. For nearly a decade Alix Spiegel was reporting on mental health for NPR, and during that time, realized she was watching the tail end of a slow sea-tide change in the therapeutic community. While many therapists used to believe that thoughts revealed some inner wishes of the soul, and that following a thought to its source was the way to achieve insight and ultimately healing in a distressed person (an idea popularized by Freud), newer schools of thought challenge that notion and believe that a thought may not reveal anything at all about your inner wishes. As one therapist we interviewed, Dr. Tom Corboy, put it, thoughts "are just synapses popping off and we don't have to take them all so seriously." As Alix noticed that there was this quiet revolution going on in the therapeutic community about what our thoughts mean (by the time of broadcast, a majority of therapist offices practice CBT or "Third Wave Therapy" which do not believe thoughts are as revealing of inner wishes as Freud), she also realized that this seemingly subtle and small shift in how we see thoughts, could actually have huge consequences for how we live our lives. In her reporting on this, she met a man who suffered from extremely violent thoughts -- everywhere he looked he pictured people being stabbed or mutilated in horrific ways -- and was ultimately tremendously healed by a therapist who told him he could ignore his thoughts. In fact, this man received a kind of exposure therapy in which he was asked to hold a butcher's knife to his therapist's throat in order to "prove" that his thoughts had no relation to his inner desires and that he wouldn't hurt anybody. It was shortly after meeting this man, that Alix met Lulu Miller, and the two journeyed to visit the man with violent thoughts and try to tell his story, and more broadly, the 'secret history' of this revolution in what therapists think about thoughts. That first reporting adventure turned into a melding of radio styles that created their very first episode and ultimately set the tone for the kinds of stories they wanted to tell: mixes of narrative and social science that reveal to listeners new way of thinking about their own behavior.
Press play for a clip of the upcoming Invisibilia season
Describe some of the challenges faced while making this project?
Blending our two techniques could sometimes be a challenge! Alix came from a more scripted and writerly background of piecing together radio stories (which she learned as one of the founding producers of This American Life) and Lulu came from a more conversational method (which she learned at Radiolab). There was a lot of forcing each other out of our comfort zones to try new ways, which wasn't always easy. We also had to understand who were were as 'co-hosts'. What was our relationship to the material, the listener, each other. In season one, we eventually settled on a sort of hybrid, in which the narration for the stories is largely written, but with the occasional raw conversational moment (a moment of teasing or authentic inquiry or confusion) popping through and blowing up the tightly orchestrated narrative. We also forced ourselves to take an improv class to get more comfortable playing around with our rapport. Which was fun. And terrifying.
Alix Spiegel, Hanna Rosin and Lulu Miller: team Invisibilia
How do you approach science storytelling?
We try to always start with an interesting story. The kinds of human mysteries or dramas, or predicaments, that have always hooked listeners since the time of the campfire. And then bring in the science just at the moment where suspense has made a person really wonder. In the story of the man with the violent thoughts, for example, we turned to the science just at the moment where the man was wondering what these thoughts meant. He was so terrified that he was losing weight, suffering at his job, afraid to have knives in the house with his wife, and wondering whether he needed to check himself into a mental hospital. The thing he really needed to understand was, what do these thoughts mean. At that moment and only at that moment, do we turn to the scientists. In other words, we try to always make the science feel like a relief, a deepening of the puzzle, and never 'dutiful.' Never like class, or like 'vegetables.'
What impact do you hope this project will have?
Our biggest hope is that Invisibilia will make people feel a little less alone in the world. Revealing through story and science that there are other ways of approaching life. That they have more tools in their psychological toolbelt than they may realize for approaching the emotional challenges of life-- overcoming fear, for example, or strengthening relationships. Another aspect of the show is that we are not afraid to talk about the dark, or scary, or seemingly shameful things (violent thoughts, paralyzing fear, suicidal thoughts, concern one is going "mad," family struggles, etc). It's our belief that when you talk about these things (and hear about others talking about these things on the radio), when you shine a little light on this stuff, that it steals its power. We hope our stories will make people feel less shame, less stigma around the kinds of struggles everyone faces.
What are the biggest challenges of an audio–only medium?
Is this a trick question!? We adore the audio-only medium of radio! Freed from visual judgments we believe that a listener can connect in a deeper way with the people in the stories. That said, every now and then, a visual is simply so stunning that radio can't do it justice. For example: a blind man riding a bicycle or removing his eyeballs from his head. An atom becoming temporarily entangled with another atom, right before our eyes. These are all moments we have included in our stories and without visuals, it forces us to be extra vivid in our descriptions. Sometimes, we surely fail to capture the visual reality before us. Alas. That's what video extras are for!
As the curators of the Science Media Awards Summit in the Hub (SMASH), we believe storytelling is a common thread in our shared human experience, and that new media allows us to convey the wonders of scientific discovery in new and compelling ways.