January 19th, 2015
Episode 440 of 587 episodes
In the second of two programmes, Geoff Watts continues to explore the science, history and cultural implications of gossip. Gossip has a bad reputation and for the most part, and deservedly so. Yet, on-going research appears to suggest that gossip does serve a useful purpose. Not least because our brains may be hard wired for it. Researchers in Boston have used a technique known as binocular rivalry (showing different images to left and right eye at the same time) to suggest that gossip acts as an early warning system, that the brain automatically redirects your attention onto people you've heard negative remarks about. Even though this process happens at a sub-conscious level, your brain is sifting through and weeding out anyone in your surroundings that you may be have good reason to distrust. Elsewhere, researchers in Manchester have been analysing what makes gossip memorable and are now scanning subjects brains to see if there are specific gossip networks which light up. From preliminary results it appears gossip activates areas in the brain similar to those that produce feelings of pleasure and reward. Next they plan to scan their subjects' brains as they tweet. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in many of these experiments, it is celebrity gossip that tends to produce the largest response. Thanks to what one commentator calls the perfect storm of 24-hour news, reality TV and social media, the all-pervasive celebrity gossip industry exploits our endless appetite for information about people we will never meet. But could even celebrity gossip serve a purpose? Or are we gorging ourselves on trivia whilst ignoring the plight of those closest to us? And can and should anything be done to stem the negative impact of gossip in a digital age?