Human brains are “wired” to learn in social situations. While the word “wired” may seem inappropriate when describing human physiology, it is illustrative. Human brains comprise long and thin neurons; electrical and chemical activity in those cells cretes cognition. The survival of the human species has been attributed to the cooperation among members of a group. Together, we can be stronger and faster and more resilient than any individual, and thus we gain a survival advantage by participating in social groups.
Humans, it is not surprising to learn, are very competent in social situation. Our cognition is enhanced in social situations; we perceive more, connect more observations, remember more, and can disseminate more in groups. While “groupthink” is a real bias that can limit the quality of our cognition, we are generally better thinkers when we are in groups.
In the 21st century, we can observe different parts of human brains as they engage in learning and cognition. Different parts of the brain are active during different kinds of thinking and this leads scholars to draw conclusions about the function of brains.
In his 2013 book, Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Learn, Matthew Lieberman described research from late in the 20th century that determined the default areas of brain activity. When a person stops trying to do something else, and the rest of the brain goes quite, the default areas are active. If one begins working one math problem, for example, the default area goes quite as the “math area” become more active, and once the math problem is solved, its part of the brain turns off and the default area is again active.
The default area of the brain, as it turns out, is that part that is active when one is engaged in social cognition which is thinking about “people, oneself, and the relation of oneself to others.” Our brains prefer to think in social terms.
For educators, this has important implications. If we engage our students in social learning activities, we are engaging their brains in default mode. Further, if educators can engage both the social brain with the cognitive brain, then students are more likely to learn and remember what we teach them. For these reasons, educators seek to build opportunities for interaction into their courses.
Lieberman, M. D. (2013). Social: why our brains are wired to connect. New York: Crown Publishers.