How the brain takes criticism


The thing about criticism is that it really doesn't always roll off our backs.

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."

"So it literally affects you to your core?" asked Smith.

"Absolutely, to your core."

Of course, there is such a thing as pushing back.

Consider the case of actress Sylvia Miles, a two-time Academy Award nominee, the first time for her role in 1969's "Midnight Cowboy."

Offscreen, she was active on the New York party scene. When critic John Simon reviewed her in a 1973 play, he referred to her as a party girl and gatecrasher.

"I said her acting is more like gate-crashing," Simon recalled, "which she didn't particularly like."

Not long afterward, Miles spotted Simon at a party, and she happened to be holding a plate of food.

"I look up and he's standing right there," Miles told Smith. "Without further adieu and without even thinking -- I mean, I don't even remember thinking anything -- I just dumped it on the top of his head. I said, 'Now you can call me a plate crasher, as well.'"

Simon said, "That proves that negative criticism does stick with certain people."

"What went through your head when a plate of food landed on it?" Smith asked.

"Well, I said, 'Too bad, I would have liked to eat it. But now that it's been spilled all over me.'"

Despite the food fight, Sylvia Miles kept on working. And Simon, now 88, is still writing reviews (without apologies or regrets) as the critic for the Westchester Guardian. .

Smith asked, "Would you take back anything you've said about Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli, Sylvia Miles?"

"No, I would not, I think," he replied. "Repulsiveness remains repulsive, no matter what."

Of course, not all critics are John Simon, and not all criticism's bad for you.

Tonight, the movie people will get picked apart, as will we all at some point.

But Sylvia Miles managed to put her memories in their proper place, and chances are, so can we.

Smith said, "One of the things that we're seeing is that our brains tend to remember the negative."

"Oh, absolutely, I couldn't agree with you more," said Miles. "But that's only if you allow that.

"But I've learned to find ways to see the positive side of everything. Because you stay healthier if you're happy and you're smiling and you feel good. And I'd rather get a laugh than a frown, you know what I mean?"


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