The shocking impact that negative people have on your brain, according to science

We all have these people in our lives. The eternal pessimists who are quick to point out when you’re wrong. The ones who will always explain why your plans won’t come to fruition. The people who bring you down by complaining about whatever’s happening in their own lives.

They’re perpetually negative, and bring you down whenever they’re around.

Over the last few years of being an entrepreneur, I’ve encountered all kinds of negative people who never fail to bring me down:

  • The complainer: This is the person who is given to excessive complaints, crying and whining. Their default position is that something is wrong, and they never complain for the purpose of being constructive.
  • The victim: This person has the default position that the world is out to get them. Whatever happens isn’t their fault. They believe they are powerless to change what is happening to them.
  • The venter: This person is always displeased and blows their fuse at the drop of a hat. They don’t welcome solutions to the problem at hand.

Particularly in the last 12 months, I’ve learned to associate less with negative people. It’s been challenging to discern the difference between people who are being constructive and those who just always bring me down, but I think I’ve largely managed to figure this out.

Now, I’m much more relaxed and happier.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised to discover some research in neuroscience that suggests being around negative people actually rewires your brain to be more depressed and anxious. This explains why I’m feeling so much better these days!

In short, the key point is this:

When you hold an idea in your mind shared by people around you, your brain rewards you by triggering a release of dopamine. When you disagree with people around you, your brain sees that as a threat and triggers feelings of pain.

This happens even when the idea is negative and doesn’t serve you.

This means that when you’re around negative people, your brain is going to incentivize you to be more like them. The same goes with positive people.

Therefore, choose your company wisely! Read on for more details on why.

You perceive what the people around you perceive

In the 1950s, Solomon Asch, a 1950s Swarthmore College psychologist, asked a group of volunteers to guess the length of a vertical black line on a plain white card.

The results were interesting.

Each person’s guess depended on the people they were surrounded by. If a person was surrounded by people who overestimated the length, they would do the same. Someone who was around people who underestimated the length also did the same.

People literally saw the line differently depending on who they were around.

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The implications of this are enormous. If you surround yourself with negative people, you’ll start to see the world more negatively.

Neurons which fire together, wire together

Although I would love to be able to claim it, I didn’t come up with the phrase “neurons that fire together wire together.” It was first used in 1949 by Donald Hebb, a Canadian neuropsychologist known for his work in the field of associative learning.

Hebb’s axiom reminds us that every experience, thought, feeling, and physical sensation triggers thousands of neurons, which form a neural network.

It means that when you repeat the same negative thought over and over, it triggers patterns in the brain and this strengthens the associated neural networks.

It’s incredibly difficult to stop the loop of negative thoughts when they’ve become associated with neural networks in the brain.

When you’re surrounded by negative people, it becomes incredibly difficult to get rid of negative thoughts. This is because the complainers, victims and venters in our lives constantly trigger these same patterns in our own brains. They get stronger.

When you hold an idea that matches that of people around you, you feel good

We naturally conform what we think to the people we’re surrounded with, and these people end up entrenching the patterns or neural networks in our brain.

When you hold an opinion, idea or desire that matches that of people around you, your brain rewards you. When you hold a perspective different from the people around you, your brain will trigger feelings of pain.

Consider the following two options:

  • Option A: You pretend to agree with others but continue to secretly hold on to your own thoughts
  • Option B: Your brain actively changes how you think and molds your innermost thoughts to align with that of your crowd

A recent research paper suggests you’ll end up choosing option B more often that you realize.

According to the researchers, a network within your brain involving the medial frontal cortext and anterior insula monitors “errors” based on how you’re interacting with the people around you.

When you have a disagreement, the brain perceives this as an error and will send out signals to warn you that something is wrong. Conversely, your brain will receive a dopamine hit when people around you agree with you.

What this means for you

The prognosis is pretty simple: you become more like the people you spend time with, entrenching their perspectives.

There’s two conclusions I’ve drawn from this research and my own experience:

  1. To develop independent thought, it’s important to spend time alone.
  2. To let go of negative thought patterns, stop spending time with negative people.

By gradually spending less time with negative people, I’ve been able to cultivate a more positive outlook on life.

If the group of people you spend time with can change your innermost thoughts, it changes who you are. Pick the people you want to be around wisely – you’re literally choosing the person you want to become.



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Justin Brown

Justin Brown

I'm Justin Brown, the founder of Ideapod. I've overseen the evolution of Ideapod from a social network for ideas into a publishing and education platform with millions of monthly readers and multiple products helping people to think critically, see issues clearly and engage with the world responsibly.

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