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Close Enough: The Lure of Living Through Others

Woman using a laptop computer in darkness with her hands illuminated by the computer screen isolated on black background
Alex Maxim
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Getty Images/All Canada Photos

It has never been so easy to bring the world into our living rooms and kitchens and bedrooms. And the world that enters our lives has never looked better.

It used to be that if you wanted to feel what it was like to do something, you had to go out and do it. If your dream was to see the Grand Canyon from a raft, you'd head to the river. If you wanted to gaze up close at the Mona Lisa, you'd go to Paris. But something in our culture has changed. Now, as we sit on the couch and eat take-out, we watch kitchen virtuosos whip up gourmet meals from scratch. And then, we watch other people eat meals — there's a popular genre on YouTube where you just watch other people binge eat.

These other lives we've come to inhabit can seem more beautiful, more exciting, more satisfying than anything in our actual lives. They come in multiple camera angles, with all the boring parts spliced out, and all the recipe ingredients pre-chopped in those little prep bowls. This week on Hidden Brain, we explore the delights — and the dangers — of living vicariously.

Additional resources:

" Easier Seen Than Done: Merely Watching Others Perform Can Foster an Illusion of Skill Acquisition," by Michael Kardas and Ed O'Brien

"Vicarious Consumption: Food, Television and the Ambiguity of Modernity," by Pauline Adema

"Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch," by Michael Pollan for The New York Times

The Official YouTube Channel of Bob Ross

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
Laura Kwerel
Jennifer Schmidt is a senior producer for Hidden Brain. She is responsible for crafting the complex stories that are told on the show. She researches, writes, gathers field tape, and develops story structures. Some highlights of her work on Hidden Brain include episodes about the causes of the #MeToo movement, how diversity drives creativity, and the complex psychology of addiction.
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.