Exposure to nonstop negativity actually impairs brain function. Here’s how to defend yourself.
Do you hate it when people complain? It turns out there’s a good reason: Listening to too much complaining is bad for your brain in multiple ways, according to Trevor Blake, a serial entrepreneur and author of Three Simple Steps: A Map to Success in Business and Life. In the book, he describes how neuroscientists have learned to measure brain activity when faced with various stimuli, including a long gripe session.
“The brain works more like a muscle than we thought,” Blake says. “So if you’re pinned in a corner for too long listening to someone being negative, you’re more likely to behave that way as well.”
Even worse, being exposed to too much complaining can actually make you dumb. Research shows that exposure to 30 minutes or more of negativity–including viewing such material on TV–actually peels away neurons in the brain’s hippocampus. “That’s the part of your brain you need for problem solving,” he says. “Basically, it turns your brain to mush.”
But if you’re running a company, don’t you need to hear about anything that may have gone wrong? “There’s a big difference between bringing your attention to something that’s awry and a complaint,” Blake says. “Typically, people who are complaining don’t want a solution; they just want you to join in the indignity of the whole thing. You can almost hear brains clink when six people get together and start saying, ‘Isn’t it terrible?’ This will damage your brain even if you’re just passively listening. And if you try to change their behavior, you’ll become the target of the complaint.”
So, how do you defend yourself and your brain from all the negativity? Blake recommends the following tactics:
1. Get some distance
“My father was a chain smoker,” Blake confides. “I tried to change his habit, but it’s not easy to do that.” Blake knew secondhand smoke could damage his own lungs as well. “My only recourse was to distance myself.”
You should look at complaining the same way, he says. “The approach I’ve always taken with complaining is to think of it as the same as passive smoking.” Your brain will thank you if you get yourself away from the complainer, if you can.