Brain science to improve your relationships

Srini Pillay, MD


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.


  1. Carla Melucci Ardito

    I teach students a form of self-healing called “resolution therapy” and the way I translate this brain wiring is as follows. When we are younger and not able for whatever reason to feel our pure emotions (fear, anger, sadness and need) we are left with an internal conflict between our bodies and our brains (right brain vs left) – when in a present moment, something triggers this conflict we “react” instead of “respond” because our bodies and brains are recalling the initial struggle. So, i teach my students how to use the sensations in their breathing, feeling bodies to find out where the original conflict took place and then I help them use their emotions, processing and validation to resolve. Then they don’t have to forever be triggered. My Facebook page is called “Resolution Therapy” and I am writing a book right now entitled, “Feel It, Feel Better” Unlocking The Power of Pure Emotion – would love tonchat wity you sometime! Carla Melucci Ardito

  2. Jennifer Huebnet

    I love this information. I have sent the blog to my autistic spectrum son who struggles with relationships. We will talk about the article and try to get some basic rules out of it for social interaction. There must be related research on social skill deficits and how to improve them through this kind of brain knowledge.
    Jennifer Huebner

  3. Bob

    Very Interesting. It would be even more interesting to see how you would use your analysis and solutions on a bigger scale to bring some understanding on the identity politics happening in the USA that seems to be bringing out partisan outrage all over the place as I think you may well be in the best position to understand how the brain is operating and why. Perhaps this is the only place where mutual understanding can occur and hard to argue against as brain science is non partisan.

    • Srini PIllay, M.D.

      I agree Bob. This is powerful language for conflict resolution in partisan politics. Understanding the view of the “other” is what will move all of us forward, I believe.

  4. Kade Bolani

    Great article! I now know why i behave the way I do as it relates to my relationships. Thank you

  5. Audrey

    This was very informative however when confronted with a friend of many years who spent those years complaining to me about her life for which I only showed sympathy and tried to suggest helping hints; she surprised me when I asked her to march with me for the separated families when she became somewhat irate and said things which obviously were racist at which point I lost it and yelled at her in the diner where we were having lunch.
    At this time, I do not wish to associate with her but we have friends in common which presents a bit of a problem regarding get togethers. I sincerely do not want to associate with a racist person.

  6. Gary Favero

    I find that using empathy with another party,especially if you’ve experienced what they’re going through, helps immensely. Even though
    the situation might not be the same , giving them the comfort and understanding they need is a big step to help them realize they’re not alone in the world. Most important is to let them know it’s okay for them to feel the way they do, it’s only normal. Just try not to take on their problems and make them your own.

  7. Katherine

    If you write out a Name Tag for someone and they say “That’s the worst handwriting I’ve ever seen!”…………… would you reply to that statement by paraphrasing with cognitive empathy????

    • Srini Pillay, M.D.

      There are a few options here.
      1. You could stay connected to your good intentions and ignore their comment if possible.
      2. If your handwriting is in fact not good, you might say, “I agree that may handwriting is good. Hopefully, my good intentions are also coming through.”
      3. If your handwriting is fine, you might say, “Have a fantastic day” by way of protecting your own mirror neurons (and perhaps, switch your attention internally to something or soon who makes you feel good.

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