Many people believe that when Mercury is in retrograde, we become vulnerable to communication breakdowns, relationship turmoil and misunderstandings with friends and loved ones, as if there is cosmic static or interference that gets in the way of our normal communication patterns.
Some speculate that, depending on the cycle, certain Zodiac signs are more likely to suffer. For instance, a recent piece published in the New York Post suggests that during the current Mercury retrograde cycle, the mutable signs, Gemini, Virgo, Sagittarius, and Pisces, will feel the effects of Mercury retrograde most acutely — and that Gemini is especially susceptible because twins are ruled by Mercury.
Others have suggested that big decisions, like signing a contract or starting a new venture, should be delayed during these periods.
What should we make of such claims? Are they completely baseless? Or is there something to the idea?
Here are three ways to deepen your understanding of this unique phenomenon from a scientific standpoint.
1. Let’s Start With The Astrophysics
We are currently in a “Mercury Retrograde” cycle. The cycle began on August 23rd and will continue until September 14.
Scientifically speaking, this cycle occurs about every four months and lasts approximately three weeks. It is an optical illusion of sorts, where Mercury, from Earth’s vantage point, appears to change direction and move backward across the sky, before returning to its usual path.
Its apparent path shift, however, is completely explainable and occurs whenever you have two planets orbiting the sun at different distances and speeds. (Here is a useful video to help visualize the illusion.)
2. Is There Any Science To Support The Idea That Mercury In Retrograde Affects Mental Health?
The short answer is no. But there’s more to the story than a simple “no.”
For one, it’s not wrong to suggest that Earth’s position in the solar system can impact our mental health. Look no further than Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is estimated to impact approximately 5% of the adult population.
It’s also not wrong to believe that what you believe in, even if it’s untrue or not based in reality, can profoundly impact your mental state. The power of placebos is one such example of this. Or, consider psychological disorders such as “Medical School Syndrome,” where a medical school student (perfectly healthy) starts to experience the symptoms of a particular disorder or disease they are learning about.
Our brains are powerful, sense-making machines — and they can be quite good at weaving what feels like a truthful narrative out of a series of speculative or misguided observations.
With that said, science has yet to discover any evidence to suggest that Mercury retrograde cycles impact the human experience in any detectable way, beyond what people might believe, and artificially reify, about these cycles.
Even looking at Zodiac signs and astrology more broadly, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that these models of personality are anything more than storytelling. For example, one study conducted on a sample of more than 170,000 (!) Chinese adults found no association between a person’s astrological sign and their personality traits (i.e., Geminis were no more “temperamental” than other signs, Virgos were no more “critical,” etc.).
3. Is It Harmful To Believe In Scientifically-Unsubstantiated Ideas Like Mercury Retrograde Fallacies?
Not necessarily. In fact, believing in ideas that blur the lines between truth and fantasy may have some unique socio-psychological benefits. For example, how many times have you been able to strike up a conversation with a stranger or acquaintance around the topic of astrology and come out of it feeling like you know them better afterward? These narratives can become powerful bonding agents — incredibly useful for our society that depends upon cooperation and interconnectedness.
Moreover, in the case of Mercury retrograde, regardless of whether you believe in the premise, it’s always a good idea to work on communication in our close relationships.
However, there is a point at which these pseudoscientific explanations can become problematic. For example, in the case of Zodiac signs, the research cited above found that, in China, hiring managers discriminate on the basis of astrological signs — and that they are especially prejudiced against Virgos.
“Anecdotally, in China, there are personality stereotypes associated with the astrological signs,” say the researchers, led by Jackson Lu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “In particular, some people intentionally avoid Virgos (those born between August 23 and September 22) as friends, romantic partners or employees, purportedly because Virgos are stereotyped as having disagreeable personalities.”
It’s okay for hiring managers to be prejudiced against disagreeable personalities but it’s not okay for them to be prejudiced against Virgos. Likewise, it’s okay for us to use Mercury retrograde cycles as a time to be gentle with ourselves and to be extra-attentive to our close relationships, but it’s not okay for us to use it as a scapegoat for relationship problems that we are unwilling to address directly.