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How Relationships Change the Brain

Relationships change the brain from birth throughout the lifespan.

Key points

  • The human brain adapts and changes in response to relationships with others.
  • Traumatic events change the brain in measurable ways.
  • Cultivating healthy relationships can help the brain recover from trauma.

Years ago, our family adopted a puppy so our three children could learn how to raise and train a pup and bond with an animal. We are a family of musicians and music lovers, so we wanted to give our pup the name of a jazz musician. I loved Django (vetoed by the family). We all loved the name Miles, so that was the name we picked even though her gender didn’t match the name. When we looked into her big brown eyes, we all felt a swelling of love and affection inside. We could have sworn that she felt it, too, when she nuzzled us with her nose and crawled up onto our laps.

Photo by Nicholas Brownlow at Unsplash
Source: Photo by Nicholas Brownlow at Unsplash

When you gaze into a dog’s eyes, the love hormone oxytocin is released in both the human and the dog. What our family felt inside showed up in our neurochemistry. Oxytocin is released when we humans feel an emotional connection with each other, such as after an orgasm, during a great conversation, or while breastfeeding (Ishak et al., 2011).

Fathers of newborn babies showed a bulking up of gray matter in regions of the brain linked to nurturing behavior. These brain changes occur within the first four months of parenthood (Kim et al., 2014). New fathers and mothers show changes in neural networks that help them attune to the needs of their newborns (Abraham et al. 2014).

When a parent comforts a crying child, the parent’s soothing voice, smell, and touch stimulate the release of several other neurochemicals besides oxytocin. Brain chemicals such as prolactin, endorphins, and dopamine provide parents and children with warm and pleasurable feelings.

The transfer of comforting energy fosters a mutual feeling of security, love, and connection. This interpersonal neurobiology delivers the raw materials to form close bonds with others. These caring relationships help one better manage stress and cope with loss (Cozolino, 2010).

Unfortunately, some children are born into war zones, deprivation, suffering, and despair. This early trauma influences how the brain develops. Fortunately, however, healthy relationships can help the brain recover from trauma.

When children grow up with verbal, physical, and sexual abuse, neglect, or witness violence, the stress from those experiences directly alters the development of the brain.

Early childhood maltreatment stunts the development of the hippocampus, the seat of long-term memory. The greater the number of harmful early childhood events, the more significant the decrease in hippocampus volume (Carrion & Wong, 2012).

Emotional abuse does something different to the brain. Those who suffered emotional abuse in childhood showed a thinning in two parts of the brain. One part processes self-awareness in the prefrontal cortex, and the other part helps us understand and cope with our own emotions in the medial temporal lobe. Thinning in these regions of the brain help explain the high rates of anxiety and depression in those who have experienced emotional abuse and neglect (Aghamohammadi-Sereshki et al., 2021; Teicher & Samson, 2016).

Traumatic experiences are common. In fact, 80 percent of us will experience at least one traumatic event in our life. Most of us will endure multiple traumatic events (Lewis et al., 2020). Fortunately, the mighty human brain is built to withstand many dangers. Your living brain learns from experience and adapts (Yusifov et al. 2021).

Healing From Trauma

You can benefit from recognizing the strength and wisdom you gained from the traumatic experiences you endured. Trauma survivors often possess carefully honed survival skills, character, and adaptability that can improve every area of life. Those who’ve survived traumatic events can find healing in collective experiences that aim to make the world better. When we direct our imagination and behavior toward the future we want to see, healthy hopefulness emerges. Begin with these three steps:

  1. Acknowledge the past: How has the trauma affected you? What feelings arise when you think about what happened to you? What have you learned from the painful past?
  2. Recognize present strengths: What personal strengths have you developed due to this trauma? Awareness, resilience, adaptability, interpersonal sensitivity, assertiveness, survival skills, resourcefulness, etc.
  3. Aim for future growth: What positive change(s) would you like to see in yourself and your community? What people or organizations can you partner with to work toward that change?

No matter what you have endured in life, new experiences reshape your brain. Healthy relationships can lower stress and help you cope better with trauma. Bonding with a social community can help you feel safe and secure. If it feels difficult to build your social community, you can start by adopting a furry pet. I hear the name Django is still available.


Aghamohammadi-Sereshki, et al. 2021. “Effects of Childhood Adversity on the Volumes of the 270 FRAZZLEBRAIN Amygdala Subuclei and Hippocampal Subfields in Individuals with Major Depressive Disorder.” Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience 46(1), 186–195.

Abraham, et al. 2014. “Father’s Brain is Sensitive to Childcare Experiences.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 9792–9797

Ishak, et al. 2011. “Oxytocin role in enhancing well-being: a literature review.” Journal of Affective Disorders, 1–9.

Cozolino, L. 2010. The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. Cozolino, Louis. 2014. The Neuroscience of Human Relationship.

Carrion, Victor G., and Shane S. Wong. 2012. “Can Traumatic Stress Slter the Brain? Understanding the Implications of Early Trauma on Brain Development and Learning.” Journal of Adolescent Health, S23–S28.

Teicher, M. H., and J. A. Samson. 2016. “Annual Research Review: Enduring Neurobiological Effects of Childhood Abuse and Neglect.” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 57, 241–266.

Yusifov, et. al. 2021. “Spine Dynamics of OSD-95-deficient Neurons in the Visual Cortex Link Silent Synapses to Structural Cortical Plasticity.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 118(10).

Kim, et. al. 2014. “Neural Plasticity in Fathers of Human Infants.” Social Neuroscience 9(5), 522–535.

More from Gina Simmons Schneider Ph.D.
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