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Complain, complain, complain — it affects the brain


This is how snowblowers are supposed to work. Credit: Jon/Flickr/Creative Commons

This is how snowblowers are supposed to work. Credit: Jon/Flickr/Creative Commons

Social researchers tell us when having a conversation most people utter one complaint about every minute. I easily fill that quota. If I am not complaining about the weather, I am complaining about something the government did or our city’s losing pro-football team.

However, my favorite whipping boy recently has been my snowblower. For the past three weeks it has gone AWOL — refusing to start. I had a friend come over who is very familiar with these type of mechanical devices, but even he couldn’t get it going.

So we threw it in the back of a half tone, and took it in for service, and as my luck had it, the warranty ran out a month earlier, so it wouldn’t be covered.

They got it going and the serviceman even started it to show it was now working.

Of course, as soon as I got it home and we had our first snowfall, the snowblower refused to start again and I had to shovel by hand.

I was not a happy camper. I had a few choice things to say about my less than reliable hunk of metal and wire cleverly disguised as a snow-dispersing machine. It was supposed to make my life easier, but instead was making my life miserable.

You may have watched football quarterbacks being carted off the football field and going for surgery after being pummeled by a mean 350 pound defensive lineman usually named Bubba. Well I had to go for knee surgery earlier this year — but not for such a dramatic reason — my leg slipped while snowblowing.

Me and my snowblowers — we have history.

Now after this latest stint of unreliability, I was complaining. I was crabby. My bad mood was fouling our family life. Even our dog noticed.

Now I could blame my grumpiness on my snowblower but in his article, How complaining rewires your brain for negativity, Travis Bradberry states that brain researchers say it was my complaining, not the crappy snowblower, that made me negative.

People who study the wonders of the brain found when we do repeated behaviors enough times, the brain creates bridges between the neurons so that particular type of information will flow quicker.

Researchers describe it this way: “neurons that fire together, wire together.” The more we complain, the easier it is to complain.

They concluded that it is the act of complaining that makes us negative, not the incident that caused it.

Bradberry writes:

“Repeated complaining rewires your brain to make future complaining more likely. Over time, you find it’s easier to be negative than to be positive, regardless of what’s happening around you. Complaining becomes your default behavior, which changes how people perceive you.”

He adds that University of Stanford researchers found through brain scans that complaining actually shrunk the size of the hippocampus that we use to solve problems.

This may explain why when complaining about a situation it is difficult to see a solution, as the very area you need to solve a problem is literally under assault.

Not surprisingly complaining stunts our spiritual life as well.

In the Old Testament, the Israelis drove God’s patience because of their constant grumbling.

In fact, they spent most of the time wandering around the wilderness complaining. The word murmer or complain shows up repeatedly. They complained about everything — water, Moses and the food were there favorite targets (Numbers 12:1-12; 14:2; 16:2; Exodus 14:11-12; 15:22).

It is pretty obvious they had no snowblowers back then because it was not on that list.

But when the Israelis complained about the food as they fondly remembered their Egyptian menu in Exodus 16:2, the Hebrew word translated murmering ‘lun liyn’ provides an interesting perspective on complaining.

2 The whole congregation of the sons of Israel grumbled (lun liyn) against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. (Exodus 16:2 NASV)

According to Strong’s, its primary meaning is to “stop over, pass the night, abide or dwell.” Its secondary meaning is to complain, grumble or murmer.

How could a word have such wide-spread meanings. Perhaps it is because these two diverging definitions are in some ways connected. Once a person starts complaining it can become habitual – we start to live in the negativity of it.

Once we get into this negative mode, it becomes such a part of our life, we don’t even know we are doing it. It is almost second nature to us. We start complaining about one thing, and soon we are complaining about everything.

As Christians we need to counter our complaining and negativity with faith in God. We need to begin to change the way we think and talk.

It is not going to be an easy job, because there are still snowblowers to test us.

But Paul makes this powerful statement. He says that we are not changed by salvation, we are transformed by the renewing of our mind – changing the way we think:

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2 NASV)

We need to begin believing and talking a life of faith and hope:

26 And looking at them Jesus said to them, “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26 NASV)

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1 Comment

  1. Yes; well said, and a theme in which we need regular encouragement. Thankfulness is one of the secrets of the spiritual journey – and when we know we are in Christ’s presence, we can be grateful despite what else competes for our mental space. Though difficult, it is not impossible. So much of changing our attitude is, as you note, being transformed by the renewing of our minds.

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