Faster Thinking

The earphone is connected to the brain bone

Four ways flying can make you more intelligent. By Mark Jones

You arrive at your destination after a long-haul flight. I guess your priorities are to be a) on time and b) rested. How about c) Smarter?

You can read, watch arthouse movies and intelligent documentaries. But perhaps the best way to get the neural pathways fired up is to listen. An interesting experiment performed a few years back showed that listeners to radio programmes were significantly more attentive and better able to tell if someone was telling the truth than either readers or, especially, TV viewers. With a radio programme or podcast we concentrate on the unadorned human voice, not the appearance of the speaker nor the stuff around them.

Since the word was first used by the technology writer Ben Hammersley in 2004, the podcast has helped inspire a new golden age of radio. Here are some non-fiction brainy programmes you can hear on British Airways or download before the flight.


In our time (BBC podcast)
In 1998, you’d often hear complaints that the BBC was ‘dumbing down’ its programming. Then along came this: 40 minutes of no-intellectual-holds-barred intellectual discussion between presenter Melvyn Bragg and three academic guests. What is under discussion? Everything from The Science of Glass to Daoism, The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum to Sovereignty. All 500-plus programmes are available and every one will have a new or surprising insight for anyone but the deepest experts in the subject. One other bonus: if you don’t get to the end of a show, it will be because you’ve fallen asleep – which is no bad thing on a long flight. After six or seven attempts, I’ve still to get to the end of the programme on Icelandic Sagas.

Freakonomics; and 50 things that made the modern economy (BA on board/BBC)
The new breed of media-friendly academics and experts don’t dilute their message: they just put it in a more attractive package. The Freakonomics podcast by Steve Levitt and Stephen Dubner has a great name and a smart way of applying the theories of Economics (aka ‘the dismal science’) to real-world events and issues. Their British counterpart, Tim Harford, recently concluded his series 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy. This does for Economics what Neil MacGregor did for archaeology and museology in A History of the World in 100 Objects and his new series, Living with the Gods: they take a single object or a local phenomenon and use it to tell a very big story about culture, civilisation and belief.

Intelligence squared (BA on board)
If you are one of those people who believes that the quickest way to the truth is through argument and disputation, then this is the series (both live events and audio programmes) for you. As a break for the in-depth policy wonk stuff, the series has moved into the cultural realm with the ‘versus’ series, where advocates argue for their hero – as in the battle of the spy novelists, with Ian Fleming pitted against John Le Carre.

An introduction to Bulgarian (BA on board)
If you fly a good deal, perhaps it’s time to take on a more serious challenge than preparing the next board meeting agenda. Learning a language form scratch is an obvious candidate. Tune into this Innovative Language series and you will soon surprise and delight your friends as you discourse on suffixed definite articles and inferential moods in the southern Slavic languages.