The Social Brain

Teachers often spend a lot of time and energy in the classroom trying to transmit information from inside their expert heads into the novice heads of their students. This form of pedagogy is based on the information deficit model of learning. Teachers commonly believe that students lack information and that the teacher’s job is to provide that information by repeating what the students have already seen in the textbook. If this were the case, students should do just as well or better by staying home and spending more time memorizing the information in the textbook. This is the traditional view of pedagogy that needs changing.

In fact, the teacher plays a more valuable role than we often realize. Teachers make difficult to remember information easier to memorize by situating the content to be learned in a social context and by creating the conditions for a social motivation to learn with reciprocal teaching and peer learning opportunities.

Watch the video below to transform your understanding of your social value as a teacher in just 7 minutes. Ah-ha moments are guaranteed.

School learning is very inefficient. By the time a child turns 18, he or she has spent twenty thousand hours in school. And yet children remember only a small fraction of what their teacher taught (Lieberman, 2012).

Perhaps there is a more efficient way to learn and remember than current practices. In fact, research suggests that there is a better way.

Did you know that brain size is highly correlated with social complexity? The larger and more complex an animal’s social group is, the larger its brain. Of course, humans live in the largest and most complex groups ever encountered in nature, and consequently we have the largest brains for our body size.

We need our big brains to keep track of other people and make sense of their mental lives in terms of motives, goals, thoughts, feelings, and dispositions.

So, we are evolved to think about people. But our schools often teach information as a list of discrete facts, without any reference to the social context of those facts. Socializing in class is discouraged, and students are arranged into columns and rows to isolate them from each other. How many times have you heard your teachers say, “No talking!” Too often. Right?

Neuroscientists have identified two memory encoding systems, what I will call the information brain and the social brain. The social brain, however, is repressed in education because it is seen as interfering with memorization. But I will explain two ways in which the social brain can make learning more efficient.

Ask yourself, what would happen if we made learning more social?

Common mistakes

Let’s consider the mistakes teachers so often make. High school history courses often focus on the political and military facts of history. There are years, names, and treaties to remember. These facts are commonly taught without the social content that young people naturally crave, leading young minds to wander to other distractions that impede learning. Yet historical events were filled with people with motives, goals, thoughts, feelings, and dispositions. Those details were not recorded in the history books, and speculating about the interior lives of historical figures is rarely part of the narrative.

That was your history class. What about English class?

English courses devote a lot of time to learning how to write properly. Teachers focus on spelling, grammar, punctuation, topic sentences, thesis statements, and the five-paragraph essay structure. Typically these are presented as a set of rules to be learned and applied to writing. And every year, teachers teach the same list of rules and structures as if it had never been taught before. Strange.

Of course, good writing is all about getting ideas from inside your head into the minds of other people, so that they understand you and are touched, moved, and persuaded. Without the social component of writing, lessons on writing well are easy to forget.

A greater focus on the people doing the writing and the people reading it, should help to make all of that more memorable.

But math and science are all about facts and theorems. The content of these courses is more difficult to make social. But even if the content to be learned is not about people, making the learning process more social should help.

Let’s look at the research findings to see how social content and social learning can be implemented.

Research findings

A study conducted in New Haven Connecticut in nineteen eighty, asked participants to read statements about everyday events in the past tense. For example, “read the evening newspaper,” “cleaned up the house before company came,” etc. These are just ordinary familiar events.

The first group of participants was told to memorize the information for a test later on. A second group of participants was told to read the same list of statements but to imagine the person who participated in the events listed. Researchers asked this group. What is your impression of the people who did these actions? This second group was not told about the test that they would be taking at the end.

What happened? The group that was told to memorize the information remembered more on the test. Right? Wrong. Exactly the opposite happened.

Contrary to what we might expect, the group that was asked to think about the social context of the events rather than the events themselves remembered significantly more. And they had no idea that a test was coming.

The social brain made remembering easier.

Reciprocal teaching

Research into students teaching students showed a similar advantage. Researchers found that individuals who learned non-social course content in order to teach another person showed the same kind of recall advantage over individuals with a memorization goal.


It turns out that thinking about the people you want to share information with, helps you encode that information in your social brain, leading to better recall. In other words, having the social motivation to communicate that information to someone else during encoding is sufficient to engage the superior memorization processes of the social brain.

Learning in order to teach someone else is better than learning just to remember something yourself.


Let’s summarize what we have discussed and consider the implications.

Imagine the people involved when learning about events

Humans have a big brain to track the thoughts of other people. Thinking about other people while learning about events helps us remember those events better. The implication is that we should try to imagine the people involved in events while trying to memorize those events.

Use narrative writing to make grammar stick

For language teachers, another implication is to get students to imagine using the target structures with people, or to imagine the motivations of people who use the target language. For this reason first-person narrative writing activities are a great way to give language structures a social component. Instead of filling blanks and conjugating verbs, invent a character and write about situations in which he or she would want to use the grammar and vocabulary from the lesson.

Imagine explaining lesson content to other people

In other courses, simply thinking about explaining non-social information to other people in order to teach them uses the same memory encoding system, helping everyone remember the information better and longer. Reciprocal teaching improves learning.

Interrupt your lesson with an “Explain it to your partner moment”

Every so often, teachers should interrupt their lessons and ask students to turn to their neighbours and summarize what was just covered. All teachers in every subject can make learning more efficient by getting students to explain the content of the lesson to a classmate.


There you have it. The classroom of the future is more social and more efficient.

Now, review what we have discussed and explain it back to me or explain it to a classmate. It will help you remember what you have learned. Why? Because of your big social brain.

Explain to me what you just learned


Bargh JA, Schul Y. On the cognitive benefits of teaching. Journal of Educational Psychology 1980;72:593–604.

Hamilton DL, Katz LB, Leirer VO. Cognitive representations of personality impressions: organizational processes in first impression formation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1980;39:1050–63.

Lieberman, M. D. (2012). Education and the social brain. Trends in Neuroscience and Education, 1(1), 3-9