Matthew Lieberman, a professor of biobehavioral sciences at the University of California, L.A., says that students (humans) like community because of the way our brain is wired—a hypothesis he pretty much proved during a simple MRI scan.

In the experiment, which you can read about either in brief description in this New York Times article, or in his book, Lieberman had participants hooked up to an MRI and presented with a game called Cyberball.

In the game, the participant is given a handheld device that simulates a “hand” on a screen. This hand has the ability to pass a ball to two other “players.” In the scenario, the participant passes the ball to a player, who passes it to the third player, and then the third player passes it back to the MRI participant.

So far, the participant is happy, according to the MRI. “…scientists found that when a subject’s partner cooperated, activity increased in the ventral striatum, the brain’s primary reward center—as long as the subject had cooperated, too,” reveals the NYT.

However, when the other two players isolated the MRI participant, meaning that the participant was no longer engaged in the game, something unpleasant happened.

“…when the invisible online players stop passing the e-ball to the subject, the region that lights up in the scanner is the same region that lights up with physical pain,” the article notes. “Looking at scans from two studies side by side, Lieberman says, ‘without knowing which was an analysis of physical pain and which was an analysis of social pain, you wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference.’”

The conclusion, and the crux of Lierberman’s book, is that humans are inherently social. If you want to engage students (who are generally young in age and tend to crave social support), providing community is one solution.

Providing community in an online setting is especially important, since students are physically separated from their peers.

(Next page: Keys to a good online community)

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