I read this old news today as it's gone viral in Italy:

That pain you feel listening to complainers? It's real enough to peel away neurons from your brain and render it pretty much useless, reports Inc. "The brain works more like a muscle than we thought," says Trevor Blake, an entrepreneur who wrote Three Simple Steps: A Map to Success in Business and Life. "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."


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."


Is this just a guy trying to sell his book or is there hard science behind his claims?

  • 1
    Does the guy claim any specific types of damage - a.k.a. de-myelination, synapse/dendritic changes, or is he referring to neurochemical imbalances? – MCM Dec 28 '12 at 20:50
  • Not sure, I've added another claim source to the question which is a bit more specific. – Sklivvz Dec 28 '12 at 21:53
  • If listening to complaints makes you dumb, I wonder if actually doing the complaining has an effect as well? – Kenshin Dec 29 '12 at 5:26
  • 3
    Anything you do "changes your brain". As it stands the claim is to vague to be meaningfully labeled as true or false. – Christian Dec 30 '12 at 17:49
  • Ask anyone in tech support and they'll tell you stories on how they can sometimes literally feel their neurons dying off while the customer drones on... – Shadur Jul 24 '13 at 11:44

The book cited makes a similar, but not as-strong, claim based on a scientific article which does not support it

Both articles cite a book by Trevor Blake, Three Simple Steps: A Map to Success in Business and Life. I've looked up the chapter in question and here is what it says:

Excerpt from "Three Simple Steps"

I've tracked down (I believe) the original article. It does not support the claims of the author! The article is about the discovery that the meaning of words influences which parts of the brain are activated. It says nothing about negative words being detrimental, let alone peeling away neurons.


The effects of task conditions on brain activation to emotional stimuli are poorly understood. In this event-related fMRI study, brain activation to negative and positive words (matched for arousal) and neutral words was investigated under two task conditions. Subjects either had to attend to the emotional meaning (direct task) or to non-emotional features of the words (indirect task). Regardless of task, positive vs. negative words led to increased activation in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex, while negative vs. positive words induced increased activation of the insula. Compared to neutral words, all emotional words were associated with increased activation of the amygdala. Finally, the direct condition, as compared to the indirect condition, led to enhanced activation to emotional vs. neutral words in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex. These results suggest valence and arousal dependent brain activation patterns that are partially modulated by participants’ processing mode of the emotional stimuli.

—Thomas Straube, Andreas Sauer, Wolfgang H.R. Miltner, Brain activation during direct and indirect processing of positive and negative words, Department of Biological and Clinical Psychology, Friedrich Schiller University, Germany


This is the part of the book about stressors and brain damage:

The effects of fear are important to understand if you want to get out of the quicksand. As soon as you feel fear, the amygdala (a small almond-shaped organ in the center of your brain) sends signals to your autonomic nervous system, which then has a wide range of effects. Your heart rate increases, your blood pressure goes up, your breathing gets quicker, and stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released.

Robert Sapolsky, a Professor of neuroendocrinology at Stanford University, has focused his research on issues of stress and neural degeneration. He has won many honors for his papers that show links between long-term stressful life experiences, long-term exposure to hormones such as cortisol produced during stress, and shrinking of the hippocampus area of the brain.

The hippocampus is a mass of neurons each with multiple branch-like extensions (dendrites and axons), which make connections (synapses) with other neurons all across the brain. The hippocampus is also one of the few regions of the brain known to be able to produce new neurons, a process called neurogenesis.

Professor Sapolsky has shown that enduring a high stressor for more than 30 minutes negatively impacts the hippocampus in various ways. To begin, sustained exposure to higher than normal levels of cortisol results in the pruning back of the number of branches and synaptic connections of hippocampal neurons. By a variety of mechanisms, these conditions also increase the rate of cell death in this region of the brain.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, recent research is also demonstrating that sustained increases in glucocorticoid levels also has negative effects, impairing the hippocampus’s ability to create new neurons. Over a period of time, all of this results in the shrinking in size of the hippocampus with associated declines in cognitive function, including the ability to retain new information and adapt to new situations, which is exactly what you don’t want when you are attempting to reinvent your life.

The challenge we face with regard to the news media is that the brain does not distinguish between that which is real and that which is imagined. Watching a scene of carnage in a warzone causes some of the same detrimental effects as if we were actually there ourselves. The fear response we have in front of the TV is the same we would have in the real situation. Of course, it is diluted somewhat by the safety net of our home, but people addicted to the news are subjecting themselves to chronic stress every time they tune in. Day after day they take their dose of news and induce a cascade of destruction in their neurons.

Fortunately, according to Sapolsky, the negative effects of excessive stress can not only be stopped but also reversed “once the source, psychological or physical, is removed or sufficiently reduced.” Simple! Change a little, change a lot.

--Three Simple Steps: A Map to Success in Business and Life

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