15 Podcasts That Will Make You 15 Percent Smarter
These are the best shows for being a better conversationalist.
A mantra many of today’s most successful people share: “never stop learning.” While it might not be convenient for most to add a few college classes or survey courses to their already busy schedule, there’s a good chance that you have a few minutes a day for a podcast. Whether you are listening during your commute to work, while mowing the lawn, or cooking up dinner, podcasts are a great way to pass the time in an entertaining, engaging, and educational way—and there are some super-smart listening experiences out there for the curious-minded.
If you’re looking to boost your knowledge of history, science, current events, or a wide range of other subjects, these shows offer some quick aural intelligence. And for more ways to challenge yourself to be better, here are 7 Ways to Boost Brain Power After 40.
As its name implies, this podcast explores how we make decisions and get into behavior patterns often without realizing what we are doing or why. Host and NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam draws on the latest psychology and sociology research to explore what drives human behavior, how it is impacting your own life, and how you might be able to change it for the better. A good episode for newbies: “In Praise of Mess: Why Disorder May Be Good for Us.”
Just has Hidden Brain encourages you to examine the often-overlooked elements driving human behavior, 99% Invisible spotlights the things that are right in front of our face that you pass perhaps daily—works of architecture or design that shape our lives in ways we don’t think about. Taking its name from Buckminister Fuller’s quote, “99 percent of who you are is invisible and untouchable,” it shines a light on everything from baseball stadiums, to stethoscopes, to athletic bras. Hosted by Roman Mars, it’s hard not to come away from an episode seeing the world in a slightly different, better-informed light. And for more ways to be smarter, here are 10 Ways to Develop a Photographic Memory.
Launched in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, this show tackles big, complicated questions about the economy, explaining them in everyday, easily comprehendible language. It delves into issues and how they affect the wider world in surprising ways, from the price of college to an obscure chicken tax in California. Whether you read John Maynard Keynes in your free time or if you’re someone who zoned out during Econ 101, you’re going to find plenty to like and learn here.
Speaking of accessible economics Stephen J. Dubner, journalist and co-author of the massively successful Freakonomics books, hosts the highly entertaining Freakonomics Radio. The show not only tackles big topics while keeping things fun, but frames them in surprisingly insightful ways. One recent episode asked, “Why Don’t We All Speak the Same Language?” while another looked at our weird obsession with lawns.
At a time when presidential politics can be a bit depressing, this show from the Washington Post provides some fun and insightful context into the history of the executive branch. In forty-four episodes that led to Election Day 2016, the podcast dove into the personality and legacy of each man who took on America’s highest office, with input from Pulitzer Prize-winning historians such as David McCullough and journalists such as Bob Woodward. It’s a great one both to learn some surprising things about figures as familiar as George Washington or obscure as Millard Fillmore. And for more great aural assistance, know that Bill Murray’s Secret Spotify Playlist Will Boost Your Productivity.
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is everywhere these days, from late-night shows to cameos in major movies, and a listen to his podcast makes it easy to understand why. He can explain the complexities of space and science topics from climate change to solar eclipses, while also delving into such quirky subjects as the physics of basketball or science behind Game of Thrones. While Tyson is pretty funny himself, he gets help from comedian and celebrity cohosts that make this a really fun listen.
It’s not called “hardcore” for nothing. More in-depth books than one-off episodes, Dan Carlin takes several months to create each of his installments, often taking years to cover topics such as the empire of Genghis Khan and the Eastern Front of World War II. He approaches these topics through a number of angles, always emphasizing its relevance to current debates.
The Naked Scientists
This show’s panel of scientists discuss science-related news of the day while also opening up the conversation to a live studio audience, who can ask the panelists about everything from whether science can reverse the aging process to how memory works. The tone is lively, interactive, and accessible, making it a great option for those who might otherwise be intimidated by such left-brained topics.
This podcast from WNYC has been a must-listen show for those interested in science and philosophical questions for years, not just for the interesting topics it tackles, but how it tackles them. It incorporates innovative sound design and editing with its interviews and stories, creating an unusual aural landscape into which hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich explore the week’s topic.
The Tim Ferris Show
While many of the shows on this list focus on deconstructing complicated topics, this show from the man behind the 4-Hour Work Week aims to deconstruct the most successful people in the world. Tim Ferris offers practical life hacks through interviews with people like Richard Branson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tony Robbins, and many more, challenging listeners’ assumptions about figures they think they know, all with an eye toward enhancing their own lives.
Rather than ancient history or curiosities of design, this show delves into something familiar to anyone who knows how to download a podcast: the internet. Hosts PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman look at how the internet is shaping and changing the world and the people who are shaping the internet, from how conspiracy theories can go viral to how we compromise our privacy without realizing it—all told in engaging, funny ways.
All in the Mind
This BBC Radio show explores “the limits and potential of the human mind,” with host Claudia Hammond walking listeners through strange and fascinating topics such as sleep paralysis, the psychology of self-driving cars, and other odd pockets of the human brain. You’ll come away understanding your own thinking, and others’, much more clearly.
How to Do Everything
This show is something like a more complicated take on an advice column: Hosts Mike Danforth and Ian Chillag take a listener’s quirky or urgent question (“How do I train a jellyfish?” “How do I find the best seat on an airplane?”) and find equally quirky and entertaining ways of answering them, usually recruiting the help of experts to help provide a solution.
Those who have a morbid curiosity about how doctors used to help treat and “heal” people should give this show a listen. Produced by Dr. Sydnee McElroy and her husband Justin, it dives into weird chapters of medical history, looking at all the odd and misguided ways medical professionals have attempted to help people in previous decades and centuries—often doing just the opposite.
If you’re a fan of Eats, Shoots & Leaves or enjoy learning the odd origins of idioms, this show will give you plenty to chew on. Hosted by linguist John McWhorter, each episode dives into a grammatical or etymological topic, finding some surprising stories along the way. Recent episodes have tackled whether languages simplify over time, and where the term “Baby Mama” came from. And for more ways to keep boosting your brain, here are the 15 Over-the-Counter Drugs That Will Make You Smarter.
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