A new study sheds light on how a person could influence and control the mind of someone else. Research on mice reveals that our brains are affected by those around us. The key factor is dominance. The brain of the subordinate mouse synchronized to the dominant mouse. This likely applies to our relationships. Typically, people with stronger personalities make the decisions and get their needs met more often than their partners do.

Other factors play a part. The more the mice interacted with each other, the more their brain activity was synched. Similarly, the longevity and intensity of a relationship affects our partner’s influence on us. A further twist on brain synchrony turns on two types of brain cells we have. One set is focused on our own behavior and a second on other people. How we think and where we place our attention matters. At Carnegie Mellon University, neuroscientists are tracking our thoughts in fMRI’s brain scans to see which areas and neurons light up. Self and other neurons light up in varying degrees among certain populations.1

Dominance vs. Balance in Relationships

Ideally, friendships and intimate relationships are balanced so that both friends and partners have an equal say in decision-making. Overall, both individuals get their needs met. They each are able to assert themselves and negotiate on their own behalf. There is give and take and compromise. This is an interdependent relationship. It requires autonomy, self-esteem, mutual respect, and assertive communication skills.

Contrast codependent relationships that are imbalanced. One individual leads and the other follows; one dominates and the other accommodates. Some relationships are characterized by constant conflict and power struggles. My book Conquering Shame and Codependency describes traits and motivations of “Master” and “Accommodator” personalities. The master is aggressive and motivated to maintain power and control, while the accommodator is passive and motivated to maintain love and connection. Most of us have aspects of both types in our personality, although some people predominantly fall into one category. For example, many codependents are accommodators, and most narcissists prefer to be masters.

How Our Partner Controls Our Brain

Brain synchronization enables the dominant animal to lead and subordinate animals to read its cues and follow. How might this impact our relationships? The new research suggests that in unequal relationships, the dominant partner’s brain will entrain that of the subordinate partner, whose brain will synchronize with it. This pattern becomes more established the longer the couple interacts.

Some individuals, including codependents, are assertive and appear to behave independently prior to or outside of the relationship. But once attached to a master, they increasingly accommodate the dominant partner. Codependents admit to losing themselves in relationships. There are many variables at work, but presumably brain synchronization is one of them and makes it harder for the subordinate person in the relationship to think and act autonomously and challenge the power imbalance.

Codependents and accommodators focus on others more than themselves. They monitor and adapt to other people’s needs, wants, and feelings. If you ask a codependent what’s on their mind, it’s usually about someone else. Hence, I also hypothesize that the brains of masters and narcissists probably light up “self neurons” more than “other neurons,” and codependents “other neurons” light up more consistently than “self neurons.” Their personalities prime them to do so.

How to Combat Brain Control

The synchronization process happens automatically and outside of our conscious control. It supports healthy relationships by allowing partners to be “in sync,” and read each other’s cues and minds. We know what our partner feels and needs. When there’s mutuality, love deepens, and happiness multiplies for both. On the other hand, where this process is in the service of one partner controlling the other, the relationship becomes toxic. Love and happiness wither and die.

The dominant partner has no incentive to give up control. It’s up to the subordinate partner to change the relationship dynamics. In doing so, power in the relationship may rebalance. Regardless, he or she will have gained the autonomy and mental strength to enjoy a better life or leave the relationship. Basic steps to making these changes are:

  1. Learn all you can about codependency and abuse.
  2. Join Codependents Anonymous and begin psychotherapy.
  3. Build your self-esteem.
  4. Learn not to react to putdowns or your partner’s attempts to control and manipulate you.
  5. Learn to be assertive and set boundaries.
  6. Develop activities and interests you participate in without your partner.
  7. Learn mindfulness meditation to strengthen your mind.

1. Stahl, L. (2019, November 24). The Russian Hack, Tania’s Story, Mind Reading. [Television series episode] in Shari Finkelstein (Producer) 60 Minutes. New York: CBS.

© 2019 Darlene Lancer