The Neural Bases of Feeling Understood and not Understood

Sylvia A. Morelli; Jared B. Torre; Naomi I. Eisenberger

Disclosures

Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2014;9(12):1890-1896. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction

Abstract

Past research suggests that feeling understood enhances both personal and social well-being. However, little research has examined the neurobiological bases of feeling understood and not understood. We addressed these gaps by experimentally inducing felt understanding and not understanding as participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging. The results demonstrated that feeling understood activated neural regions previously associated with reward and social connection (i.e. ventral striatum and middle insula), while not feeling understood activated neural regions previously associated with negative affect (i.e. anterior insula). Both feeling understood and not feeling understood activated different components of the mentalizing system (feeling understood: precuneus and temporoparietal junction; not feeling understood: dorsomedial prefrontal cortex). Neural responses were associated with subsequent feelings of social connection and disconnection and were modulated by individual differences in rejection sensitivity. Thus, this study provides insight into the psychological processes underlying feeling understood (or not) and may suggest new avenues for targeted interventions that amplify the benefits of feeling understood or buffer individuals from the harmful consequences of not feeling understood.

Introduction

Every day, thousands of individuals visit the website 'Experience Project' to share their personal experiences. The nodes of this social network are organized by life experiences (e.g. surviving a divorce or fighting cancer), and members can share their stories with others who have encountered similar events. The slogan for the website is 'Find people who understand you,' and this goal seems to appeal to many, as the website reports that over 35 million experiences have been shared. But why is feeling understood so appealing? One possibility is that feeling understood provides us with the sense that we are socially connected and not alone, whereas not feeling understood may make us feel socially rejected and isolated.

Indeed, much of human behavior is driven by the need to belong and the desire to connect with others (Baumeister and Leary, 1995; Cacioppo and Patrick, 2008; Lieberman and Eisenberger, 2008). Findings across social psychology, neuroscience, and health psychology all suggest that social connection is rewarding and salubrious (Cohen, 2004; Eisenberger, 2013; Inagaki and Eisenberger, 2011, 2013), while social disconnection is aversive and detrimental to mental and physical health (Whisman et al., 2000; Hawkley et al., 2003; Cacioppo and Patrick, 2008). Although these studies have consistently demonstrated that interpersonal connections bolster happiness and health, it is unclear what specific social interactions produce these robust effects.

Past research suggests that feeling understood by others may be a critical component of social connection, enhancing both personal and social well-being (Reis and Shaver, 1988; Cahn, 1990; Swann, 1990; Reis et al., 2000, 2004; Oishi et al., 2010). For example, on days participants felt more understood during social interactions, they also felt more closely connected with others and more satisfied with their life (Reis et al., 2000; Lun et al., 2008). In interactions between strangers, felt understanding enhanced interaction satisfaction and partner liking (Cross et al., 2000) and decreased negative affect (Seehausen et al., 2012) and perceived pain (Oishi et al., 2013). In close relationships, felt understanding has been shown to foster intimacy, trust, and relationship satisfaction, in addition to diminishing stress and boosting positive affect and life satisfaction (Laurenceau et al., 1998; Lippert and Prager, 2001; Gable et al., 2004, 2006; Reis et al., 2004; Oishi et al., 2008). In contrast, not feeling understood degrades social relationships and personal well-being, leading to reduced liking, relationship breakups, negative affect, and less satisfaction with life (Butler et al., 2003; Gable et al., 2006; Lun et al., 2008; Oishi et al., 2010).

Given the importance of felt understanding for well-being, it is critical to establish the neural bases of feeling understood and not understood and link these neural signatures to interpersonal and intrapersonal outcomes. However, to our knowledge, no studies have examined these critical questions. Further, although studies have shown that individual and cultural differences impact felt understanding (Cross et al., 2000; Lun et al., 2008; Oishi et al., 2010), it is unclear how these individual differences are instantiated in the brain when feeling understood and not understood. This study addressed these gaps by experimentally inducing felt understanding and not understanding as participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Critically, our analyses examined neural regions that track with participants' subjective ratings of felt understanding. Further, we tested whether these subjective ratings of felt understanding were associated with subsequent interpersonal closeness with interaction partners (i.e. liking). Finally, we examined whether individual differences in rejection sensitivity (RS) altered neural responses to understanding and non-understanding feedback from others.

Because of the paucity of neural work on feeling understood and not understood, it is difficult to make precise predictions. However, a large body of work on neural responses to various forms of social connection and disconnection suggest several candidate regions. For example, when individuals receive positive feedback from others (Izuma et al., 2008) or receive loving messages from close others (Inagaki and Eisenberger, 2013), reward-related regions (e.g. ventral striatum [VS]) are activated. In addition, some research suggests that experiencing physical and emotional closeness with others or viewing close others activates the middle insula (Olausson et al., 2002; Bartels and Zeki, 2004; Eisenberger et al., 2011; Inagaki and Eisenberger, 2013). Thus, we predicted that felt understanding may boost feelings of social closeness and activate VS and middle insula. In contrast, we predicted that not feeling understood may create social distance and activate neural regions previously associated with social disconnection. More specifically, past research demonstrates that social rejection and negative social feedback activate the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) and anterior insula (AI) (Eisenberger et al., 2003, 2011; Kross et al., 2007). Therefore, not feeling understood may activate the dACC and AI, with trait differences in RS amplifying neural responses in these regions.

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