Brain science to improve your relationships – Harvard Health Blog

On the surface, your own brain may be your furthest consideration when you are trying to improve your relationships. Yet it is the very place that processes where you perceive, understand, remember, evaluate, desire, and respond to people.

The somewhat bizarre fact of life is that the people who are in our lives are not simply who they actually are. They are some interesting mix of who they are and what we make of them in our brains. If we understand the ways in which relationships impact our brains, we can likely change our brains to alter the ways in which we interact with others too.


Transference is a psychological phenomenon in which conversational or relational partners activate earlier memories. As a result, we may unconsciously repeat conflicts from the past that have nothing to do with the current relationship.

For instance, you may be having an off day and may be a little short with a colleague. The colleague may snap at you in a way that is out of proportion to your actual interaction, since your manner may remind them of a conflictual and bossy relationship earlier in their lives. These kinds of knee-jerk responses occur in the brain due to the brain’s propensity to make non-conscious predictions based on early life experiences. They may be unwarranted, but we are usually not aware of them.

What you can do: To prevent this kind of situation, introduce new self-reflections, and possibly even points of discussion when you find yourself engaged in a conflict. Ask yourself, “Am I responding to this person, or am I mixing them up with someone from the past?” This can also make for an interesting discussion when you are trying to resolve a conflict.

Emotional contagion

Our emotions can be easily transferred to another person without us even knowing about this. This can also happen through large-scale social networks without in-person interactions or nonverbal cues.

Interact with a disgruntled group online, and you are likely to feel disgruntled as well. On the other hand, interacting with a positive group will probably make you feel more positive. Often, our negative emotions such as anger are transferred more easily than positive ones. It’s meant to be to our evolutionary advantage to be able to pick up emotions that quickly, but sometimes it can interfere with relationship dynamics. The culprits responsible for this contagion in the brain are called mirror neurons. They are specialized to automatically pick up the emotions of others.

What you can do: When you are interacting online, ensure that you know that whatever content you are consuming is likely to impact your mood. Be judicious about this depending on what you want to feel.

In interactions with friends, colleagues, or romantic partners, be aware that their negative emotions could throw you into a negative state, even if you do not actually feel negative. Many a fearful dating partner has turned off the other person automatically because they somehow start to feel afraid as well.

Be aware when your partner or colleague “makes” you angry. You may not actually be angry with them, but instead, mistaking their anger for yours when your brain reflects their feeling states.

Cognitive empathy

When you are trying to negotiate with someone, you may think it helpful to reflect their emotions, but this emotional empathy could backfire. In most instances, it’s far more effective to use cognitive empathy instead. When you use cognitive empathy, the other person becomes less defensive and feels heard too. While there is some overlap, cognitive empathy activates a mentalizing network in the brain, which differs from the emotional mirroring mechanisms of emotional empathy.

What you can do: When trying to resolve a conflict, try using cognitive empathy rather than emotional empathy to resolve the conflict. This means that you reflect on what they are saying, and then neutrally paraphrase what they are saying or intending. Paraphrasing can actually decrease their anger and reactivity. It’s a form of cognitive empathy, indicating that you are able to walk in their shoes.

Changing your own brain’s automatic reactions can help you navigate relationships more effectively. By knowing when to examine and explore transference, emotional empathy, and cognitive empathy in different situations, relationships have the potential to deepen too.