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Gossip gets a little bit of a bad rap. Sure, it’s not nice to talk about people behind their backs, and maybe there are more productive ways to pass the time, but that’s not to say that gossip doesn’t have any social value. In fact, it has plenty: As author Yuval Harari argued in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, gossip is the foundation of our species’ survival.
“Social cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction. It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bisons,” he wrote. “It’s much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest and who is a cheat.” This information about which individuals could be trusted — in other words, gossip — allowed early humans not only to survive, but also to expand their tribes. Long hours spent gossiping helped the early humans to forge friendships and hierarchies, which, in turn, helped to establish the social order and cooperation that eventually set them apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.
And with a skill so vital to everyday life, it makes sense that our brains are structured to help us hone it. Gossiping or sharing social knowledge involves retrieving previously acquired information about an individual from our vast social network, a process that’s more complicated than it sounds. In 1992, a seminal research paper in the British Journal of Psychology suggested that names are unique cues that trigger patterns of recall about a person; other studies have examined faces as cues. A 2005 study in the journal Nature, for example, found that a single neuron in the brain was activated when a participant looked at pictures of the actress Halle Berry, but that it failed to do the same for other famous faces. (Interestingly, the same lone cell also responded to an image of Berry’s name, leading one researcher to speculate that it was really responding to “the concept of Halle Berry” more than any one visual image.)
Now, new research sheds a little more light on how the brain is built to process gossip: In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers identified an area called the anterior temporal lobe, or ATL, as a sort of hub for social knowledge and personal identities. When someone asks you to recall a piece of information about a specific person, this is the part of the brain that springs into action.
The ATL is the frontal part of the temporal lobe, one of four major lobes of the cerebrum, and has been found to play a role in semantic memory, our knowledge of objects, people, words, and facts. Different aspects of person-based knowledge — like an individual’s name, face, status and traits — are each stored in discrete regions of the brain. The ATL serves as a neural switchboard that, when cued appropriately, retrieves the information from all these regions and coordinates the flow of information.
The cues that activate this process could be as varied as a name, an image of a face, the sound of a voice, a scene, or an object associated with the individual (for example, when you see someone performing the moonwalk, it may cue your knowledge of Michael Jackson). “ATL has an important role in remembering biographical information about a person,” explains Yin Wang, a postdoctoral psychology researcher at the Temple University in Philadelphia and the lead author of the PNAS study, “but the person representation in ATL is neither perceptually (e.g. face) nor linguistically (e.g. name) based; it is actually represented in an abstract conceptual form.”
To understand how person-specific information is represented, Wang and his team asked 50 participants to learn the biographical details of several fictitious people, including their face, name, age, marital status, occupation, city of residence, and house. After a couple of days, the participants were given the face and name of each character and asked to recall specific pieces of information as the researchers monitored their brain activity using an fMRI machine. Two different regions of the brain were activated: for the face cue, the face fusiform area, a region involved in decoding faces; and for the name cue, the visual word form area, a region involved in decoding words.
Here’s where the ATL comes in: Studies have shown that during the identification process, the region will become more connected to whichever part of the brain is pulling up the knowledge in question. Show someone a face, for example, and their ATL will show increased connectivity with the face fusiform area; show them a name, and the ATL will build its neural connections to the visual word form area. “Although person knowledge is stored at different sites of the brain and a variety of stimuli can cue the same person,” Wang says, “we found person memory retrievals are all mediated/coordinated by the ATL, which acts as a neural switch.”
And each of the initial stimuli, like name and face, are decoded, the ATL retrieves pieces of person-specific information from their respective storage regions and generates an abstract representation of the person. In another part of the study, the participants were asked to learn different details about a different set of fictitious people, this time their occupation and whether they were an introvert or extrovert. This time, they received only one cue, either the face or the name, to help them pull up the right information. When the researchers again monitored their brain activity, they found that the two pieces of knowledge were stored in separate places: The posterior cingulate cortex, which plays a role in memory and social cognition, helped the volunteers remember if their character was an introvert or extrovert; the inferior parietal lobe, a region known for its role in recognizing social hierarchy and dominance, lit up when they recalled the character’s job and salary.
But social knowledge, like all other aspects of memory, can change over time. When we go for a long stretch without recalling a person’s information, it takes us longer to retrieve it, because connectivity between brain regions gets weaker if we don’t consolidate the information frequently. Conversely, sometimes it takes just a fraction of a second to recall person information; according to a 2016 study, people who had large social networks were far more efficient in processing information of new people.
In other words, with gossip, practice makes perfect — or at least, makes you a whole lot better at remembering social information. It makes us who we are: a highly cooperative species with intricate social structures. Businesses, communities, and military units all run like well-oiled machines when cooperation is optimal and everyone knows who’s who. As Harari put it in Sapiens, humans “can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos.”