Morelli, S. A., Torre, J. B., & Eisenberger, N. I. (2014). The neural bases of feeling understood and not understood. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 9(12), 1890-1896. Doi: 10.1093/scan/nst191
Background & Theory
This article addresses how our brain reacts when we feel understood versus when we don’t feel understood. The authors evaluate how this further impacts our relationships with others, how we might react to situations, and so forth when we are experiencing negative vs. positive reactions in the brain.
The authors seek to answer the following questions:
- How does feeling understood impact our brain at the neural level, and in what ways does this impact us socially?
- Are there individual factors that might affect people differently, such as a higher tolerance for being rejected?
To test this theory, the authors had 19 participants from UCLA, all of which were undergraduate students (35 participants were initially selected, but 16 were dismissed for various reasons regarding not meeting full criteria). The participants were categorized as follows: 9 male/19 female, 37% Caucasian/47% Asian American/16% Latin American.
For the study, the researchers asked all participants to write emotional positive and negative stories and record them, and from here the researchers edited these and cut them down to only 4 videos per student, with 2 of each left. Independent judges assisted in this process for fairness. The participants were initially told their videos were private, but later were told other students had the opportunity to view them. It’s important to note that the participants were ultimately asked for permission to share their videos, but not when they first recorded, as it was expected that knowledge would impact their storytelling.
The researchers did not show the videos to other students, but created commentary as if other students did; these comments were then used to provoke the feelings of being understood or not understood and the participants were evaluated under the fMRI (all students early in the process also completed the Sensitivity to Rejection Scale to be used for evaluating individual tolerance).
Following their time in the MRI, the participants were asked to rate their feelings of the comments on their stories, and also how it made them feel about the commentators. The authors then evaluated the MRI scans alongside the responses from the participants and used a scale to measure the results.
The results showed that feeling understood or not understood does impact our brain at the neural level. It is suggested that feeling understood can active our reward and social connection parts of the brain, and not feeling understood shows an association with the parts of our brain where negative emotions and thinking about others are.
Additionally, it was shown that our individual tolerances can play a role, primarily in that if we are sensitive or easily upset by being rejected, we may react more negatively when not feeling understood (but not necessarily the other way around). This particular sensitivity under the MRI showed activation in the brain where we experience negativity and social rejection.
Finally, when feeling understood, there is a stronger likelihood for closer bonding with the people involved, and when not feeling understood, we are more likely to dissociate from the people involved.
What This Means
- Feeling understood or not understood affects not only our emotions, but our brains at the neural level. The larger impact from this is how we view those around us, and furthermore, how we interact with them.
- The value of understanding each other, or trying to, goes a long way in creating trust and positive relationships, especially for those who are particularly impacted by feeling understood (or not).
- Based on this, understanding one another, or creating a feeling of being understood, can significantly help with conflicts, whereas a feeling of not being understood can continue conflict.
For consultants: Even where it might be difficult, aim to create a space where everyone involved feels understood. It’s shown that not only emotionally, but even physically, this can assist in mending the situation and creating peace.
For everyone: We all enjoy feeling understood, and now we know there is a reason beyond our emotions for this response. Knowing this, do your best to consider how others feel and how you can help make them understood.