The Neuroscience of Social Learning

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neuroscience of social learningWe spend a lot of time talking about how social learning is one of the keys to an effective, engaging training strategy.

We often bombard you with stats proving that social learning works, but let’s delve a little deeper into the reasons why it works.

A lot of very clever people have dedicated their lives to understanding the inner workings of our brains. We’ve gathered together some of the very best research to help you better understand the neuroscience of social learning!

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Social needs

neuroscience of social learningA growing body of research is showing that our need to connect socially with other people is as basic as any other survival need. In fact, UCLA professor Matthew Lieberman has challenged Abraham Maslow and his famous hierarchy of needs, placing social needs at the bottom of the pyramid. This makes them more essential than food and water!

He explains how our brains have been evolving for millions of years to turn us into the social creatures we are today. That’s why creating social connections in learning can have such an impact. To our brains, it simply feels more natural than learning on our own.

There is also a clear link between emotions and learning. Emotions are handled by the brain’s prefrontal cortex, and the same area is used for our memories. In fact, our working memory has been shown to be impaired by negative emotions, such as fear and anxiety.

Psychologist Daniel Goleman says that by building social and emotional learning programmes, we can pave the way for more effective learning. Building caring relationships with teachers and other students increases the desire to learn, which sounds perfect to us!

Mirror neurons

In the 1990s, a scientific breakthrough was made when ‘mirror neurons’ were discovered in the brains of monkeys. These neurons fire as the monkey watches the actions of another. So, for example, by watching another monkey (or human) use a hammer, it will start to learn how to use it itself. (For a great, lively summary of mirror neurons, watch this TED talk by neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran)

neuroscience of social learning

Since then, it’s been endlessly debated whether these mystical neurons are also present within the human brain, and the issue has become one of the hottest topics in all of neuroscience!

Later studies have actually shown that newborn babies are able to imitate the body movements of other people. This can happen as early as 40 minutes after birth, meaning that before an infant even sees its own face in a mirror, it is able to mirror the behaviour of other humans.

If mirror neurons do in fact exist within our own brains, then it would help explain why we find it so easy to learn from other people, observing and mirroring their actions.

Learning socially

What we’ve learned so far is perhaps best summed up by the words of Psychology professor Louis Cozolino – “The brain is a social organ.”

The modern human brain’s primary environment is our matrix of social relationships. By building close personal relationships, we can stimulate positive emotions, neuroplasticity, and learning.

neuroscience of social learning

Cozolino also notes that while our brains have evolved to pay attention to other people, we find it much more difficult to analyse ourselves. So by discussing topics with others, we’re able to empathise and consider it from completely different viewpoints, helping us be more critical and develop a more robust understanding.

Finally, studies show that if you try to use a robot to teach people, their willingness to connect with and learn from it will increase as you give it more social-like behaviours.

You can think of the LMS as a robot – lifeless and emotionless. But as you populate it with real people and facilitate social networking, your learners will find themselves much more willing to use the system for learning!

If you want to see how you can deliver an effective social learning programme, why not book a free tour of our Academy LMS? Simply click the banner below to sign up, and we can show you our arsenal of social functionality:

neuroscience of social learning

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