Depending on what you're in the mood for, you might queue up some music or tune into a podcast — and there's a clear distinction between what listening to the two feels like. Though it might be obvious that your brain reacts differently to podcasts vs. music, there's also significant overlap. According to experts, without even feeling it, a narrative podcast and a song can both inspire your mind to light up in extraordinarily elaborate ways.
Maybe you think the choice boils down to either being in a learning mood or a productive mood, but music and podcasts don't necessarily have such narrowly defined effects on our minds. In a study published on February 5, 2020, in Frontiers in Psychology, researchers found that high tempo music (over 170 beats per minute) can potentially inspire people to endure their exercise longer than if they were listening to medium or low tempo music. The study suggested that the rhythm and pace energized athletes, both mentally and physically, allowing them to maintain their stamina while they worked out. While it might seem that the spoken word could be more closely linked to lower tempo music, a study discussed on the Freakonomics podcast episode, "Your Brain on Podcasts," paints a different picture.
On the podcast, Jack Gallant, a computational and cognitive neuroscientist from UC Berkeley, explained his study that found an obvious link between narrative podcasts and activated brain function. Gallant and his team discovered that listening to certain kinds of storytelling themed podcasts, like The Moth, created an exponential amount of activation in the brain, as observed by fMRI. Essentially, the brain lit up, showing increased function, proving that though podcasts don't necessarily make us want to dance, they are energizing.
Music, on the other hand, is dynamic in a different way. Bustle talked to Dr. Sanam Hafeez Psy.D, a neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University, who explained that "music has a versatile relationship with the brain." It's not solely a type of entertainment that we either dance to or passively ignore. In fact, we can actively listen to music and engage with it without even knowing. "The brain can register music in the background of a party while we have a conversation with someone else," Dr. Hafeez tells Bustle. "Or it can concentrate on the notes and lyrics of a song to stimulate the body into continuing to exercise, or drowning out other noises while we study, or even evoke feelings that coincide with the song’s content."
We're most aware of music's ability to affect us when we rely on it for focus or when it triggers nostalgia, according to Dr. Hafeez. "For some people, music helps them study more efficiently, relax, and reduce anxiety. It can also activate the brain’s memories. A song could take you back to a specific moment in time, a specific memory," she continues. However, podcasts are much more focused on "information consumption" and require a greater degree of active listening. In other words, she explains, you can zone out during a song and still enjoy it, whereas you might get lost in a podcast if you don't pay attention the entire time.
That said, there's still some cross over between the two listening experiences. "Studies have shown that when we are listening to a podcast, our brain visualizes the information," Dr. Hafeez says, confirming what most people would assume is true of podcast consumption. "With music our brain is memorizing melodies, our body is taking in rhythm, our subconscious is getting acquainted with the repetition," she adds.
All in all, if you feel like getting lost in conversation, chances are a podcast is your best bet. Alternatively, you might turn on your pop tunes playlist if you're feeling nostalgic. No matter what you choose, your brain will pick the sounds apart in one way or another.
Dr. Sanam Hafeez Psy.D, a licensed neuropsychologist in New York City and faculty member at Columbia University.
Huth, A. G., Heer, W. A. de, Griffiths, T. L., Theunissen, F. E., & Gallant, J. L. (2016, April 27). Natural speech reveals the semantic maps that tile human cerebral cortex. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/nature17637
Maria, V., Johnny, Iuliano, Enzo, Paolo, L., Dražen, … Andrea. (2020, January 10). The Psychophysiological Effects of Different Tempo Music on Endurance Versus High-Intensity Performances. Retrieved from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00074/full