I Have No Brain and I Must Veg: The Virtue of How It’s Made

There are times when your brain turns to cheese, and is not good for anything useful, and yet you are not tired enough to sleep. For times like this, I turn to How It’s Made, the TV show where, to bland-yet-weirdly-compelling background music, the creation process of every day objects is documented and explained. Are these explanations interesting? Not as such, but they have the form and function of being interesting without actually demanding, you know, thought. It feels like you’re learning things but it actually requires nothing of you. It slides into your eyeballs and falls right out of your brain five minutes later. I love it and could easily watch 14 hours of it without interruption.

What is your “my brain is cheese and yet I cannot sleep” distraction? I crave your answer.

— JS

68 Comments on “I Have No Brain and I Must Veg: The Virtue of How It’s Made”

  1. My brain cheese is scrolling through Instagram and watching doggie, foodie, and artists-making-art reels. I blame this on having fast enough internet for the first time ever (I got Starlink about 10 months ago).

  2. I’ll put on a TV show and let it run. Usually Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, Elementary, Lost Girl or Wynonna Earp.

  3. My kids loved How It’s Made on the Discovery Channel when they were young. At some point my son discovered some youtube series like “is it a good idea to microwave this” and “will it blend.” At the end of the workday my brain either catches up on news, reads a book, or follows blogs of interesting people. Makes sense that the interesting people need a different outlet.

  4. The Incredible Dr. Pol. I love the show and how they help the animals Terri come across, but it’s not like I’m learning how to be a vet or anything.

  5. Leah Adams, have you tried DEATH IN PARADISE for your cheap&cheerful mystery fix yet? It’s a long-running BBC series about a lovely small fictional Caribbean island with a murder rate to rival Detroit’s, and the revolving door of ex-Scotland Yard inspectors who somehow end up as the Chief of Detectives solving play-fair murder mysteries with the aid of the local police force and the semi-aid/semi-impediment of the island’s Commissioner (one of the two persons on the show who’ve been there from the start).

    Scalzi, I used to watch MYTHBUSTERS and TOP GEAR for that same “I feel like I’m learning something, but it pours right out of my brain” feeling. I am, however, looking forward to a SF/Mystery series from you about somebody who solves crimes based on all of the HOW ITS MADE episodes he’s watched….

  6. Another vote for How It’s Made, with British voiceover if given the choice. I also really enjoy the soothing Canadian tones of Ted Woodford, a luthier in Hamilton, Ontario. He shows himself repairing ridiculously expensive guitars, and also the really cheap ones that are maybe not even worth the effort in strictly economic terms. He’s taught me a lot about woodworking.

  7. Reruns of anything light that I enjoyed the first time around, usually comedies: 70’s, 80’s, modern classics like “Hot in Cleveland,” and lots of British comedies. It works best with shows I have seen many times. Set the sleep timer and bye bye insomnia!

  8. Romcoms. Ones that I’ve watched over and over. It’s the movie version of comfort food. Specifically the original ‘Overboard’, which I will never admit how many times I’ve seen. ‘A Good Year’, ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, ‘Leap Year’ and most recently ’Fools Gold’. To name a few. I have a list.

  9. I watch How It’s Made all the time. I put cartoons on (Looney Tunes esp), Boomerang channel, and crochet…..blanks my mind right out.

  10. Actually, now that I think about it, I have a better one: The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross.

  11. I play mesmerizing and mindless games like Blocks or Woodoku. Unfortunately, I sometimes get a cramp in my hand before my brain zones out…

  12. Hank Green’s SciShow on YouTube, especially the interview episodes with the animal visits at the end. There are, like, 90 of them in the playlist, so they can run all night if my brain is being annoying. I’ve tried music and audio books, but Hank and Co are the perfect combo of interesting but not-too-interesting, and generally even sound levels.

  13. Love that show too! We live in New England. Lone Star Law is in Texas and the situations are often rougher.

  14. It used to be Mythbusters, then American Pickers, How It’s Made and Border Security. These days it’s YouTube videos of magnet fishing, mudlarking, people emptying out lockers they bought at auction and/or people unboxing pallets of Amazon returns etc. for sorting & resale.

  15. Midsomer Murders on Prime. More than 20 seasons of “people get murdered in interesting ways in lovely English villages”. You can play Spot the Star Before They Were Famous, too. Olivia Colman, Orlando Bloom, Tobias Menzies, etc.

  16. reruns of the various Law and Order shows. Very formulaic and easy to have on in the background.

  17. Jigsaw puzzles.

    And match-three drop strategy computer games.

    Also walking. Walking is very good.

  18. I love the game Cubis Gold, as it totally relaxes me because I’ve played it so much. When I get to level 100 and it starts cutting back on the time available for each level, I start over at level 1. It’s not the winning that matters to me, it’s the playing. Unfortunately I can only run it on an old laptop with Windows Vista. Luckily it doesn’t require the internet so I just stay disconnected from WiFi since the OS is so out of date.

  19. I like to watch restoration videos on YouTube where someone will take an old broken and rusted tool and go through all the steps (often silently) as they restore it. (I highly recommend Hand Tool Rescue’s “IBM Cheese Cutter” as a recent-to-me example.)

    Also Baumgartner Restoration where he cleans old oil paintings, narrating each step of the process.

    And I used to watch videos of an old guy in China who would cut and trim the hooves of neglected donkeys. Don’t know why. It just absolutely scratched some part of my brain.

  20. Reality TV craft or cooking shows: the ones without a nasty competive edge and with supportive and technically proficient judges and contestants – The Great Australian or British) Bake-Off, Sewing Bee

  21. I have so many. How stuff works, how it’s made, Border Patrol, motorway Cops, pbs eons and timelines on YouTube

  22. How It’s Made got me through more than one of my husband’s hospital stays when I couldn’t stand the house being quiet, but had no capacity to actually parse anything important. I’m also a big fan (and a Patreon backer) of Baumgartner Restoration, and I’ve been falling down a makeup restoration rabbit hole lately, as well.

  23. There’s a YouTube channel called post 10 about a guy who goes around his town in heavy rain storms clearing storm drains.

    Watching the water slowly form little whirlpools as he works–then bigger whirlpools, then a sudden flow–is really affecting.

    I also like videos about rewilding land and restoring rivers by reintroducing beavers or adding SBSs (simulated beaver structures) to slow erosion, resist wildfires, and restore habitat, is incredibly soothing. Searching for “stream restoration” brings up a bunch of options, since there are so many local groups doing this work and documenting it online.

  24. Carpet cleaning, and home cleaning/organizing channels. Super satisfying. And dog/cat grooming. Also satisfying, with funny and cute animals.
    I like gardening videos too, but I like to pay a bit more attention to them, so I prefer to keep those for not-too-soft-cheese-brain days.

  25. Like most of us, I’m also a fan of How It’s Made. I also love veging out with YouTube machining videos, particularly the channels ClickSpring – a guy named Chris who’s an amazing artist who makes clocks & other very intricate & beautiful devices, & Blondiehacks, a woman named Quinn, who tackles all sorts of hobby level machining projects, offers all sorts of beginners tips, & is generally a very pleasant & funny person to listen to.

  26. Baseball. I could watch 4 games in a row, not remember any of it, and be perfectly happy. And drooling.

  27. And congrats on winning the RAH award! He was my absolute favorite author – my first intro to great, thought provoking science fiction. Very fitting that one of my favorite present-day authors was honored.

  28. For going to sleep, Audible books I know by heart on the Bluetooth speaker with a sleep timer. There’s something about Pride and Prejudice that is so soothing. For awake brain cheese times, phone card games like solitaire or spider or freecell.

  29. Chopped. Iron Chef America. Top Chef. (I have been known to leave Food Network on for background noise).


    Midsomer Murders or Death in Paradise.

    About half a dozen dance films.

  30. I don’t watch television (don’t even own a set) so my remedy for “brain is cheese but cannot sleep” is computer solitaire. It’s mindless, but it takes up JUUUUST enough of my cognitive processing that it breaks the pattern of whatever it is that my brain is perseverating over, and usually after 30 minutes or so, I am able to get to sleep.

  31. QI is wonderful – four comedians and a host in search of a quiz show. I will second the vote for Baumgartner Restorations. Julian is so soothing, and the transformations are rewarding. Toy restoration vids are also excellent, particularly Tonka trucks.

  32. EDC gear and bag reviews. I don’t know why I find them soothing as I already have more than enough EDC gear and really do not need any more bags.

    And yet, I watch and I watch.

    Or, dog videos on TikTok.

  33. For me, it’s Taskmaster – 5 comedians/ actors are given daft tasks to do in a weird house, and then judged for how they do them. It’s silly and fun and also somehow very human.
    Watch the UK one, the US one didn’t really work.
    There are 14 seasons of it, so it’s very soothing.

  34. For me it’s cooking shows. Either competitions like Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen, in which we watch a bunch of maladjusted jerks who can cook compete for a “job,” or MasterChef, where a bunch of home cooks compete for a trophy and some cash, or if I’m feeling too raw for that, the Great British Baking show, where they’re still competing but they’re nice to each other. My brain isn’t necessary for any of it, but GBBS is much more soothing than the others and is by far my favorite.

    Also good for these times is either original flavor Doctor Who or Star Trek (either TOS or TNG), because I’ve seen all of them enough times I don’t really need to engage to be soothed by them. I like “New Doctor Who” as well, but it’s not engrained in my psyche enough to veg out with it and I end up watching it closely.

  35. I like the way the narrators on HITM say “ro-butt” insted of “ro-boht.” And whenever there’s anything textile related, they usually get key terms wrong and I end up yelling at the tv like Grampa Simpson yelling at clouds.

  36. Mecum Auctions – particularly with the sound off and a classic rock playlist rolling.

    (And on Sunday afternoons, same for How It’s Made, frankly.)

  37. When my brain is mush…
    – Random YouTube videos with a focus on easy science subjects (channel: Isaac Arthur) or something that borders on philosophy (channel: Like Stores of Old, the guy’s voice is so dang soothing.) Also, game videos: tips & tricks or a playthrough.
    – Walking
    – Easier game, something on my iPad.

    Sometimes it’s nice to just relax and recharge.

  38. Ozzie Man commentary videos, Beyond the Press (wacky Finns destroying things) videos, Cracked.com, history podcasts…

  39. I watch podcasts. And yes I mean watch. I like seeing facial expressions and responses.


    https://youtube.com/@SciShowTangents sciency chat and game podcast from Hank Green and his company

    https://youtube.com/@simplypodlogical chat and social commentary from a YouTuber I watch, very liberal

    https://youtube.com/@TwentyWhatever chat and social commentary from three younger YouTubers I watch, pretty liberal

    Also “don’t blame me” and “but am I wrong” by Meghan Rienks and Melisa D. Monts (available anywhere you get podcasts, only available with video on their Patreon which I pay for) advice podcasts from two liberal women

    I love these because they are all liberal, some ear candy and sometimes I learn something.

  40. I’m awake and cannot brain: Taskmaster
    I’m awake and it’s night and I want to be soothed: Blade Mate Lawn Care on YouTube.


  41. Strangely, and this is not meant to be insulting at all, but my “brain is cheese and need to veg” material has been the works of a certain John Scalzi.

    I’m (recently) disabled, have a lot of time on my hands, a degenerative neurological disorder, and often can’t fall asleep. TV and movies don’t work for me, but reading does! I came across your name while reading Jo Walton’s excellent book/blog on her history of the Hugos. Believe you’d commented on a few of her blogposts, specifically about Heinlein. They were good comments on a good blog which frequently was covering historically interesting but not-always-great sci-fi (to me).

    So I’ve been reading Heinlein and Hester and Simak and Cordwainer Smith and etc., and I’d seen but not read Starship Troopers. Thought Heinlein’s book was… interesting but underwhelming. Saw some comments you made about it, and figured I’d give your book a shot.

    So… I read Old Man’s War, really enjoyed it (more than ST, although obviously different eras, different style, different lot of things), and your novels and blogposts have become my I have no brain and I must veg material for a couple of weeks now.

    So, thank you! Sincerely :) You’ve written a lot, and I like quite a bit of it. And I’ve still got quite a bit to read, and I’m looking forward to it.


  42. I can recommend The Floor is Lava on Netflix if you need something with no redeeming value to to laugh at. Atm, I’m using Worst Cooks in America from Food Network as a distraction that requires absolutely nothing from me.

  43. CuriosityStream. $12 / year and all the documentaries your could ask for. Many are like How it’s Made in terms of a 5 minute retention time, some are even less memorable, but some are exceptional and may cause Unexpectedly Deep Thinking.

  44. For me, light documentary series like Earth at Night, The Magic of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, or anything about whales. I used to watch Say Yes to the Dress when the episodes were shorter and more digestible. I’ll also binge through old episodes of the Great British Bake-Off

  45. Yeah. But in the streaming universe, it just isn’t worth paying for all the naked people in the woods stories just to get that. Of course, being an HBO Max subscriber, it looks like I’ll get naked people in the woods thrust upon me anyway. I hope they’ve had their shots.

  46. I read a lot of SF&F. (Love your work! I read a lot of Spider and RAH also, and military SF.) I also do jigsaw puzzles on the naptop. Playing with the kitten is good for a lot of mindless fun. Monroe thinks everything is a toy, including my hair.

    On TV, I watch a lot of NHK-World. Documentaries are another way I distract from everything. I especially like the ones about animals and botany. Astronomy shows will quickly entrance me. How It’s Made will suck me in for ages. Old TV shows are good for mindless amusement, like Dragnet, Emergency, Quincy ME, ER, Crossing Jordan, and the Star Treks. The current TV that can blank my brain: Law and Order (all iterations except L&O: LA) and the medical shows on NBC and Fox are typical for me.

    I Can Has Cheezburger is a great rabbit hole that sucks plenty of time. Weird Al on YouTube will eat time.

  47. I have a copy of the book Memory (by Lou’s McMaster bujold) that I’ll flip open to a random page and start reading.

    Dunno why this book, as opposed to any of the others, apart from the fact I only have Captain Vorpatrils Alliance as an e-book.

  48. Reminds me of my childhood and the educational clips in The Show with the Mouse. :D

    As to braincheese TV, for me it’s re-runs of shows, preferably animated ones, that I know by heart already. So I don’t have to pay too much attention to what is happening, I can locate where I am in the narrative easily, and get soothed and calmed by familiar shenanigans. Examples are the David Tennant Dr Who series, Star Trek Lower Decks, the new She-Ra.

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