BEHIND THE SCENES with Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel

Invisibilia is a show about "the invisible forces that shape human behavior." Can you talk a little more about what this means?

AS: My feeling is that there are things in this world that are shaping us, but which we are not able to see, and Lulu and I are trying to make those things visible. Usually, to explain this, I talk about a story that I reported a couple years ago on how different cultures conceptualize the experience of struggling with something intellectually. (The story was based on the work of two psychologists). So, say you are struggling with math. If you come from a Western culture you are likely to see your struggle with math as a weakness , because there is a belief in many Western cultures that it is talent or ability that drives how well you do in stuff like math and music. If talent is assumed to be the driver then — if you're struggling with math — you conclude it's because you don't have talent and you feel bad. You're just stupid. Now say you are struggling with math but you come from an Eastern culture. In that case, your struggle with math is not seen as a weakness , it's seen as a strength ! This is because the assumption in many Eastern cultures is that excellence is primarily the product of hard work. All things take struggle! So, if you are struggling it means that you are demonstrating the kind of emotional resilience you need to succeed in life. You are a good and strong person. And that difference in how intellectual struggle is conceptualized ends up affecting things in profound ways.

In America, if you give a first grade student an impossible math problem they will work on it for approximately 30 seconds. In Japan, if you give a first grade student an impossible math problem they will work on it for close to an hour. The more you work on things the better you get, so over the course of a lifetime that adds up. I think most people don't actually realize that they have a choice about how they interpret the experience of intellectual struggle. If you come from America you just assume that if you struggle with something - like math - it means that you're stupid. That's what I assumed. The assumption that is shaping your experience is INVISIBLE, but it has a profound effect on your life. That's what Invisibilia (a latin word for "all the invisible things") is about. It is about all the beliefs and assumptions and emotions that you can't see, but which profoundly affect you.

Was there a "eureka!" moment when the two of you decided to start a show together? If so, what was it?

LM: Well, it was at the Third Coast Conference two years ago! Right after we met in person for the very first time, and we took this walk (after a session called "The Quick and The Deadline") around the pond. You know that little pond right in front of Northwestern University in Evanston, where you held the Conference? The pond near the lake? It was there. Alix started talking about a therapist in LA with a very nontraditional practice that involves a butcher knife. And within about 4 minutes she had also mentioned how everything, including maybe even love, was a social construction. And I was charmed but also angered by some of the things she said – don't use YOUR smarts to take away the concept of love . And we decided to do the butcher knife story together. And on that trip to LA we had so much fun – even in LA traffic – that we kind of knew we really needed to work together. That story will be part of our pilot episode in January.

What do you hope that Invisibilia adds to the world of radio/podcasts already out there?

AS: I think what we offer is a new intellectual approach. I genuinely believe the things that we are describing and the way that we are describing them hasn't really been done before. And our hope is that after hearing our show, people will walk away with more tools for dealing with their lives.

How would you describe the strategies of storytelling and production that you've developed so far for Invisibilia ? What kinds of conversations did you have about this during the development process?

AS: Basically, Lulu and I come from very different radio traditions in terms of our production process. That's true in a lot of ways but to give you one example, Radiolab — where Lulu comes from — works a lot from natural conversation. So, someone reports a story and then comes and sits down with Jad and Robert and they talk about it, and then that conversation is cut down and intermixed with the tape. This American Life , where I originally come from, works from a more traditional scripting process. Trying to figure out how to blend these two production styles was really hard. Like, really hard. I tried to learn her way, and she tried to learn my way, and I think the end product is a little bit of both and frankly still very much evolving. But that's part of what is so damn fun about doing this show with Lulu. We're making stuff up as we go along.

Daniel Kish – as you point out in the excerpt – has been covered a lot by the media. How did you first come across him, and why choose to tell his story again, and in this way?

LM: Well. In a way we are telling the opposite story of what is usually told. He does not think he is a superhero any way (for being a blind man who can ride a bike). He thinks the fact that he is met with so much awe for being a bike-riding blind man, is exactly the problem. So, we tried to look seriously at the idea that he proposes - that many blind people could do what he does. And we end up using a completely different lens - the lens of how expectations affect us - to look at Daniel's story so it ends up in a pretty different place than many other stories do.

The way I came across Daniel is sort of strange. In grad school, I read this very depressing essay called "What Is It Like To Be a Bat," by a philosopher named Thomas Nagel that - to paraphrase crudely as a non-philosophy person who only read it once - basically says we can never know what it's like to be a bat because we don't have sonar and any attempt to imagine what the world looks like through sonar is crude and offensive to the bat. And the other thing implied in the essay, is it's not just BATS, but you will never know what another human is thinking. And so any sense of empathy or, heck, shared experience you've ever had with another soul on earth... was a delusion. (Sigh)

And I walked around haunted by that sad and eloquently argued idea for a couple of years, and then I happened to notice a footnote (in a book about birds) about "human echolocation." It said that that some humans use a kind of sonar, like BATS, to get around. And they can get so, so, so good at it, that some of them ... mountain bike! And that blew my mind, because to me it gave the tiny shred of a chance that Nagel was wrong. So, then I read everything I could about human echolocation, which led me very quickly to Daniel. And somewhere along the way, I encountered a cryptically worded sentence about some neglect or hardship in his childhood. And in so many of the accounts of how echolocation works, there was very little about HIM as a person. And so I just wanted to understand more. Specifically, I wondered if that "neglect" was real, or what it was (and it's complicated, as you will hear), and if it contributed in any way to who he became.

Can you give us a preview of what's down the line for Invisibilia ? Are there topics that you are especially excited to tackle?

LM: There is a town I really want to go to. Where a very special psychological "experiment" of sorts has been going for 700 years. And it's really kind of a cool experiment. One that flips abnormality on its head and says that, in this town, abnormal is normal. But the town is in a foreign country. And we know nobody there. And we don't know how to speak the language. So turning that one into a story might be hard.

Launching a new show is HARD. Any de-stressing rituals that you can tell us about?

AS & LM: Sometimes we watch Miley Cyrus' performance of Wrecking Ball at the AMA's. It is a very powerful performance. Sometimes we watch it over and over and over.