Colleagues complaining? Why you need to tune it out

August 9, 2012: 9:26 AM ET

Incessant exposure to negativity isn't just a drag -- it's actually bad for your brain, researchers say. Here are some ways to protect yourself.

FORTUNE -- The boss doesn't understand how tough this project is going to be. These deadlines are totally unrealistic. This customer is getting on my last nerve. What, we're supposed to work late again? Those idiots in IT (or HR, or fill in the blank) have really screwed up this time. Why can't anybody around here follow through on a simple request?

If the background buzz in your office sounds something like this, you've got plenty of company. About 70% of Americans say they work with someone who's always griping, according to a new poll of 1,060 employed adults by WiFi advertising network Cloud Nine Media. Of that group, 67% admit that being around nonstop complainers sometimes puts a damper on their own productivity.

And no wonder. Recent advances in neuroscience have turned up some intriguing insights into how a steady barrage of negative thoughts can affect the human brain. Researchers have long known that our gray matter is surprisingly plastic and is quick to begin forming new patterns. Strengthening synaptic connections through repetition, for instance, builds the capacity to recall and retain information.

MORE: "Rogue IT" is about to wreak havoc at work

Now, studies using MRIs and other tools have taken that one step further. "Negative words stimulate the areas of the brain associated with perceptions and cognitive functioning," notes serial entrepreneur and career coach Trevor Blake. "It's clear that constant exposure to complaints will reinforce negative thinking, and your behavior is likely to change to fit those negative perceptions." More

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