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Rick Hanson: New Studies on Why Criticism Hurts

Remember those 98% positive student evaluations? Or the 2% critical ones? Remember the affirmative responses to your creative work (the ones you probably already assumed)? Or the critical ones, even if done in a spirit of peer-to-peer feedback? In a day and age where positivity is king, there is brain research that supports why. Criticism hurts.

So why are the unpleasant things so unforgettable? Scientists call it negativity bias. The theory is that bad news makes a much bigger impact on our brains, and it’s been that way since the caveman days, when our lives depended on being able to remember, above all, what could kill us.

Rick Hanson’s new book Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence investigates why and how, and explores the difference between good and bad kinds of critical feedback. “We’ve got a brain that’s really good at learning from bad experiences. And it’s relatively bad at learning from good experiences. That’s why I say that the brain is like Velcro for the bad, but Teflon for the good.”

At the University of California San Diego, Dr. Martin Paulus is looking into how negative words affect the brain.

“When you hear a criticism — say somebody says to you, ‘You suck as an actor’ — that word ‘suck’ immediately gets translated from hearing it as a word, to something that is a threat to you,” said Dr. Paulus.

He says that at least two regions of the brain — the amygdala and the medial prefrontal cortex — work harder when processing criticism, and can keep the brain from doing much else.

“If I engage the brain in criticism, and it’s really working hard on that criticism, it can’t work on anything else, it becomes all-consuming,” Dr. Paulus said. “And so when you engage the brain in very strong negative things, then obviously these negative things become part of who we are.”

While it’s true that the negative sticks with us at whatever pinnacle of achievement we’ve arrived at, there are healthy ways of processing the information. Criticism has its place. Some might say it’s about the only way to achieve sustained and healthy discourse–a dialectic, if you will–in whatever your creative or entrepreneurial pursuit might be. Some critics believe that anyone who puts themselves “out there” is fair game, while others believe there are lines one should not cross.

People who receive criticism do well to “consider the source.” People who give it should beware that it’s probably going to stick.

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