The neurobiology of interpersonal experience – relationships help shape the structure and function of the brain


By Bernadette Healy

Being in relationship is not only fundamental to health and happiness [1] but is also something for which we are hard-wired neurologically[2].  Results from studies on the connections between the development of the brain and individual psychology show that in addition to our neurological propensity for social connectedness and even empathy, that interpersonal relationships actually affect the structure and functioning of the brain which in turn, impacts on a person’s emotional, social and mental functioning.

One of the leading figures in this area, Daniel Siegel[3] suggests that relationships are not just important to us emotionally or subjectively but that our relationships influence the development of the mind which he defines as patterns in the flow of energy and information[4] He suggests that the actual structure of the brain is set up to enable connection with one another – the mind actually developing not just from one’s own brain, the neurophysiological, but also via connections with the brains of those with whom we are in relationship – particularly via our early experience of relationship with parents.

That is, interpersonal interactions shape the genetically programmed maturational information which determines the development of the nervous system.   Siegel has outlined 5 interpersonal processes which he describes as being critical in the optimum shaping of brain development.  An individual’s experience of these interpersonal processes with each parent – ones early attachment experience – impact all subsequent relationships, including our romantic relationships.

There are five key interpersonal processes between parents and their children which have been found to optimise the shaping of brain development, including the ability to participate fully in healthy, connected adult relationships.

The five key interpersonal processes[5] are:

  1. Collaboration
  2. Reflective dialogue
  3. Repair
  4. Coherent narrative
  5. Emotional communication

Collaboration refers to a style of communication which is both contingent and collaborative.  It is a process in which a signal from Person A is not just received by Person B in a mirror fashion, but is processed and followed by a response from Person B which incorporates the fact that the message has been taken in, processed and interpreted and is now relayed in a collaborative exchange.

Reflective dialogue refers to the conversations particularly between parents and their children about the nature of the mind.  These conversations need to include content about thoughts, feelings, perceptions, memories, sensations, attitudes, beliefs and intentions and are necessary to develop what Siegel calls mind-sight or the ability to think about and visualize the mind itself, both of others and of the self. This ability is associated with the development of empathy and compassion.

Repair is the interpersonal process which refers to a comprehensive response to the ruptures in contingent collaborative communication within relationships.  That is, ruptures to being in tune with someone.  Ruptures are inevitable as, for a myriad of reasons, one or other in a relationship cannot always respond as fully as the other needs.

Repair is an interactive, dynamic action which requires reaching out, and giving an apology, but also acknowledging that you have made a mistake and then actively trying to get back in tune with the other. An example of the use of repair with your partner following conflict may be described as follows:

  • As soon as possible reflect on the conflict
  • go back to your partner
  • check that your ego is not leading the way and acknowledge your part in the situation
  • resist the urge to tell them what you think their contribution was
  • admit that you were wrong
  • tell them that you care about how they are feeling
  • ask them how they are
  • ask what it is that they need right now from you to repair the situation and enable them to feel better

Coherent narratives are the best predictor of successful attachment – which is the strongest predictor of positive development.  A coherent narrative is about the coherence with which the autobiographical story of a parent is relayed to the child.  It is not so much about what has happened in the parent’s life, but the coherence with which the story is relayed. The ability to tell such a narrative reflects successful neural integration – which is also required to engage in collaborative communication.

Emotional communication refers to the process of parents sharing the positive and negative emotions of their children. It is comprised of two parts: firstly a parent allows themselves to feel the emotion within themselves that the child is expressing; and secondly then helps the child to regulate his or her emotional state.  It is very important for parents to be able to share and amplify positive emotions, such as joy, in this way.  Parents need to be able to tolerate negative emotions in their children rather than seeking to quickly fix a problem or avoiding, by taking those emotions inside and modelling to children the fact that negative emotions can be tolerated and soothed and will allow us to learn about ourselves.  Moving towards rather than running away from negative emotion ultimately results in learning how to self soothe.  Anxiety is commonly related to problems with regulation of emotion including difficulties with self-soothing and is likely to have had its genesis in insufficient emotional communication with parent/s at critical developmental periods.

Attachment style and choice of romantic partner

Needless to say it is extremely common to find that one or more of the above processes is compromised in early childhood.  Impacts are felt throughout subsequent development.  The experience of the above interpersonal processes contribute to the attachment style of adults which in turn impacts our choice of romantic partner.

Understanding your experience of relationship in your family of origin will provide insight about the way that you are in relationship and clues as to areas where improvement needs to be made (great news is that you can, with sufficient effort, overcome impact of deficits in these key interpersonal processes – though obviously in cases of severe early deprivation, long-term and probably professional help will be required).


[1]Vaillant, G.E. (2002) Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the landmark Harvard study of Adult Development.  This work is based on a scientific evaluation of three prospective, longitudinal, adult development study cohorts comprising 800 subjects all of whom were born in the early 20th century. A unique database was compiled by means of giving out questionnaires every couple of years and conducting physical examinations every 5 years and standardized interviews every 15 years. Corollary data were also compiled from spouses and children. The data were scrutinized by a panel of researchers who were blind to the identities of the members.

[2] Siegel, D.J. (1999). The developing mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are. New York: Guilford Press.

[3] Siegel, D.J. (2007).  The mindful brain: Reflection and attunement in the cultivation of well-being.  New York: W.W. Norton.

[4] Siegel, D.J. (2000).  Interview with Cynthia Levin, Mental Health Net, October 1st 2000 – (accessible introduction to key concepts in Siegel’s book: The developing mind).

[5] For a step-by-step guide for parents in improving their ability to practise these interpersonal skills see: Siegel,D.J. & M. Hartzell (2014). Parenting from the inside out. (available as eBook)