Study Examines the Neural Bases of Feeling Understood vs Misunderstood

Published: January 4, 2021 | Last Updated: April 23, 2024by Vanessa Chapman
Understanding conflict in the Workplace

Summary of:

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.

Background & Theory

This article focuses around how the brain and neural pathways function when individuals feel understood versus when they feel misunderstood. Studies have shown participants’ neurological responses in different experiments to show how our brain works throughout different situations in our lives, while simultaneously analyzing our closeness in relationship with others. This study provides heavy insight for new avenues and interventions to make others feel understood and the consequences that follow for those feeling misunderstood. Overall the feeling of being understood increases self-esteem and human connection; whereas not feeling understood makes us feel socially rejected and isolated which ultimately can lead to mental health challenges.

Research Question(s)

Researchers Sylvia A. Morelli, Jared B. Torre, and Naomi I. Eisenberger in “The neural bases of feeling understood and not understood” sought to answer the following questions:

    1. How do our relationships with others affect our self-esteem?
    2. If we don’t feel understood, what are the consequences?


There were several research methods in this experiment. This includes: understanding the participants functional magnetic resonance imaging, by which psychologists analyze neural regions to track the participants subjective ratings of feeling understood. Moreover, researchers tested whether these subjective ratings of understanding were associated with the closeness of their other relationships. Lastly, researchers analyzed the differences in rejection sensitivity and witnessed if it altered neural responses to understanding feedback from others. 

Through the experiments, the results showed in-scanner ratings of how understood participants felt using eight different blocks. For each of the eight blocks, psychologists measured the participants’ ratings of liking, warmth, and willingness to spend time with each responder. 


The ultimate analysis showed that feeling understood will increase interpersonal closeness, while not feeling understood will cause isolation and social distance. Research shows that the individuals that felt understood were more satisfied in their life because they felt more closely connected to others. By feeling understood, these participants were able to show and foster intimacy, trust, relationship satisfaction, and life satisfaction.  For the individuals that felt understood there was a direct correlation with reward and social connection, while not feeling understood activated neural regions associated with negative affect.

What This Means

  • Human behavior is driven by the need to belong and the desire to connect with others.
  • The consequences for not being understood decreases the ability to connect with others which results in isolation.
  • Participants in these studies show the feeling of being understood is supported by different cognitive and emotional aspects.

Final Takeaway

For consultants: When dealing with conflict, it’s important to validate each person’s feelings and exude exemplary empathy and inclusion. 

For everyone: Human connection is what drives our behaviors. In making others feel understood, cared for, and valued we will ultimately strengthen self-esteem and relationships with others. 

Vanessa Chapman

Vanessa has a background in Business, Psychology, and Mediation. She is currently Director of Client Services for Peaceful Leaders Academy. Some of her hobbies include continuous learning, reading, writing, and participating in yoga retreats!