By Dr. Anthony Policastro

Edgar Allan Poe is known for writing tales of the macabre. One of those tales was titled “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether.” It was a short story that took place in a mental hospital.

Most of us are not familiar with the story. However, there is a quote from the story that is meaningful.  

The head of the institute says: “You are young yet, my friend . . . but the time will arrive when you will learn to judge for yourself of what is going on in the world, without trusting the gossip of others. Believe nothing you hear, and only half of what you see.”

These words even made it into the lyrics of the song “Heard it Through the Grapevine.” The singer has heard the rumors and wants to know the truth from the lover.

We often forget these words of wisdom. Social media and 24 hour news programs filled with opinions and words; we should believe none of them. However, that is not the way we often act.

There are always explanations for human behavior. Spreading information about others is sometimes called gossip. It is pretty natural behavior.

One study was done in 1993. That was before the age of social media. Even at that time, they noted that men spent 55 percent of their conversation time in “the discussion of socially relevant topics.”  For women that number rose to 67 percent.

A more recent analysis looked at the content of that conversation. It showed that 75 percent of the time, people actually spend talking about neutral topics. The comments are just made to be descriptive. They are neither positive or negative in nature.

However, about 15 percent of the time, the conversation was actually negative in nature. This would be what we call gossip. Of interest was the fact that only nine percent of the time was the conversation positive in nature.

Thus we are more likely to say something neutral in conversation than positive or negative. However, if it is not neutral, it is more likely to be negative than positive.

As social creatures, humans spread information by word long before they started writing it down. And then it was much more recent that we developed things like radio and television. Social media is the most recent example. While the original purpose was to just pass on information, it has become more than that.

There is a suggestion that there is a benefit to negative gossip. If people hear from many others that some behaviors are not acceptable, they are less likely to do those things.

When people hear gossip, it activates the prefrontal cortex in their brain. That is the area that we use to navigate complex social behaviors.

For some reason negative information about famous people stimulates the caudate nucleus of the brain. That is the reward center.

Hearing gossip increases heart rate so it is somewhat negative. Telling gossip slows the heart rate and, therefore, is calming in nature.

There are both psychological and physiological effects related to gossip. That is what makes us do it. However, we need to remember that even in the 1800s Edgar Allan Poe cautioned us to believe none of what we hear.

COVID update- It would appear that the winter COVID surge is beginning. In both 2020 and 2021 it began the first week in December. So this is consistent.

Nationally the number of new cases per week has been between 200,000 and 300,000 since the beginning of October. This week they are up to 399,000.

In Sussex County we have moved from low risk to medium risk because of an increase in COVID hospitalizations. The number of new cases has climbed to the highest it has been in the last two months.

It is not too late to get a booster immunization to get protection for Christmas visits to family.