The Power of Connection: Applying Neuroscience to Foster Deep Bonds in Online Communities

Last summer, as the world was emerging from the era of social distancing, I found myself drawn into an unexpected obsession: smoking. I joined BBQ groups on Facebook, Discord, and Reddit. I leveraged these communities for learning, recipes, answers, advice, ideas, and deals. At some point, I started helping others, giving back if you will. I found a group of people that I felt connected to and that I genuinely cared if they were successful, as much as I was concerned about my own success.

I reflected on my personal experiences with online communities over the years, leading me to ponder the broader implications of our need for connection. In my research, I found Matthew D. Lieberman’s book “Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect” published back in 2013. This research offered a compelling lens through which I started viewing my interactions in online communities. I started seeing something more than casual exchanges but vital components of our social well-being. In this post, I will explore how neuroscience and online community building have a shared significance.

The Science of Social Connections

Neuroscientist Matthew D. Lieberman published “Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect” in 2013 and it caused people to think differently about the brain. Lieberman presents a compelling argument, proposing that it is not just an organ of thought and reasoning but fundamentally a social organ, shaped by evolution to enable us to navigate the complexities of social life.

Introduction to “Social”

“Social” brings to light the idea that our brains are intricately designed to connect with others. Lieberman’s research utilizes cutting-edge techniques in social neuroscience to demonstrate how various parts of the brain are activated by social interaction and how these activations are crucial for our survival and well-being. This perspective shifts the focus from an individualistic view of brain function to one that places social connection at the core of our existence.

Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect by Matthew D. Lieberman

Key Insights for Online Community Builders

Neural Basis for Social Connections: Lieberman’s work highlights that certain areas of the brain, such as the medial prefrontal cortex and the posterior superior temporal sulcus, are specifically tuned to process social information. This insight is crucial for online community builders, as it underscores the importance of creating environments that stimulate these social processing areas, through engaging storytelling, shared experiences, and interactive content.

Impact of Social Pain and Pleasure: The book also delves into how social pain (like rejection or loneliness) and pleasure (like the joy of connection) are experienced in the brain, activating the same regions involved in physical pain and reward. For community managers, this underscores the significant impact of social interactions on members’ emotional states and highlights the importance of fostering a positive and inclusive community culture to enhance members’ overall experience.

Importance of Empathy and Cooperation: Lieberman emphasizes the role of empathy and cooperation in the evolution of human societies. He shows how our brains are equipped with mechanisms, such as mirror neurons, that help us understand and share the feelings of others. In the context of online communities, this suggests that facilitating empathetic exchanges and collaborative activities can strengthen bonds between members, making the community more cohesive and supportive.

By applying these insights, online community builders can create more engaging and meaningful spaces. Understanding that our brains are wired for connection can guide us in designing online environments that not only meet our innate social needs but also enrich our digital interactions, making them as fulfilling as our face-to-face connections. The science of social connections offers a blueprint for cultivating online communities that resonate deeply with their members, fostering a sense of belonging, understanding, and mutual support that transcends the digital divide.

Neuroscience Meets Online Community Building

The insights from Matthew D. Lieberman’s “Social” not only deepen our understanding of the human need for connection but also offer practical strategies for enhancing online communities. By considering how the brain responds to social interactions, community builders can devise more effective engagement strategies, develop thoughtful moderation policies, and implement techniques for membership growth that resonate on a neurological level.

Engagement Strategies

Understanding that our brains are wired for social interaction can revolutionize how we engage members of online communities. Lieberman’s research shows that positive social interactions activate regions of the brain associated with reward, similar to the way we experience physical pleasures. This suggests that creating opportunities for positive engagement—through interactive content, meaningful conversations, and collaborative projects—can stimulate these reward centers, making community participation more satisfying and reinforcing.

For example, incorporating features that allow members to express appreciation, like upvotes or thank-you reactions, can enhance feelings of acceptance and belonging. Additionally, facilitating group challenges or shared goals can leverage the brain’s reward system for cooperation, making the community experience more engaging and fulfilling.

Moderation and Governance

The impact of social pain, such as feeling excluded or facing conflict, is another critical insight from “Social.” Lieberman’s findings indicate that the brain processes social pain similarly to physical pain, which can have lasting effects on individuals’ well-being. This underscores the importance of moderation and governance policies that minimize social pain and promote a positive and inclusive environment.

Neuroscience-backed moderation strategies might include implementing clear community guidelines that emphasize respect and kindness, along with providing mechanisms for constructive feedback and conflict resolution. Creating a supportive atmosphere where members feel safe and valued can help mitigate the negative effects of social pain and enhance the overall community experience.

Membership Growth

Lieberman’s work also highlights the profound impact of social connections on health and happiness, suggesting that communities that offer deep, meaningful connections can attract and retain members more effectively. Emphasizing the health and happiness benefits of being part of the community can be a powerful tool for membership growth.

Community builders can highlight testimonials or stories from members about how the community has positively impacted their lives, fostering a narrative that membership is not just about shared interests but also about supporting each other’s well-being. Additionally, offering resources and events focused on well-being and personal growth can attract individuals seeking more than just a social network, appealing to their desire for meaningful social connections.

By applying the lessons from neuroscience to the realms of engagement, moderation, and membership strategies, online community builders can create spaces that not only draw people together but also cater to the fundamental human need for connection, ultimately leading to more vibrant, supportive, and sustainable communities.

Practical Applications and Strategies for Community Management

Building on the foundational insights from neuroscience, there are concrete strategies that community builders can employ to foster empathy, cooperation, and a culture of altruism within online communities. Additionally, selecting the right technical tools and platforms and establishing effective feedback loops are crucial for creating a community environment that mirrors the rich, nuanced interactions of face-to-face communication.

Empathy and Cooperation

Neuroscientific research, including findings presented in “Social,” shows that our brains are equipped with mechanisms like mirror neurons that help us understand and share the feelings of others. To cultivate a community culture that encourages empathy and cooperation, consider the following strategies:

  • Empathy Exercises: Implement regular activities that encourage members to share their experiences and perspectives, such as themed storytelling sessions or “day in the life” posts. This can help members see the world through each other’s eyes, strengthening empathetic bonds.
  • Collaborative Projects: Organize group challenges or projects that require members to work together towards a common goal. This promotes cooperation and leverages the brain’s reward system associated with collaborative success.
  • Recognition Programs: Create systems to recognize and reward acts of kindness, support, and collaboration within the community. This not only highlights these behaviors as valued but also encourages a culture of altruism.

Technical Tools and Platforms

The choice of platform and tools can significantly impact the ability of an online community to replicate the nuances of in-person interactions. To enhance the community experience through technology, consider:

  • Interactive Features: Look for platforms that offer a range of interactive features such as video calls, real-time chat, and collaborative workspaces. These tools can more closely mimic the dynamics of face-to-face interactions and facilitate deeper connections.
  • Customizable Profiles: Platforms that allow members to create detailed profiles can help members share their personalities and interests, fostering a sense of individuality and community belonging.
  • Accessibility Options: Ensure that the platform is accessible to all members, including those with disabilities. Features like screen reader compatibility and captioning for videos are essential for inclusive engagement.

Feedback Loops

Adaptability is a key feature of the social brain, as highlighted by Lieberman’s research. Online communities should embrace this adaptability through the creation of feedback mechanisms that allow for continuous evolution based on member needs. Strategies include:

  • Surveys and Polls: Regularly engage the community with surveys and polls to gauge their interests, needs, and satisfaction with the community. This direct feedback can guide improvements and innovations.
  • Suggestion Boxes: Implement a virtual suggestion box where members can freely share their ideas for the community. This not only provides valuable insights but also reinforces members’ sense of ownership and value in the community.
  • Iterative Development: Adopt an iterative approach to community features and policies, where feedback is continuously used to make incremental improvements. This process mirrors the brain’s learning mechanisms, allowing the community to evolve in a way that best serves its members.

By applying these practical applications and strategies, community builders can create online spaces that are not only engaging and supportive but also dynamic and responsive to the ever-changing needs of their members. Through a deep understanding of the neuroscience behind social connections, we can enhance the online community experience, making it as rich and fulfilling as the connections we forge in the physical world.

The Future of Online Communities

Reflecting back on my initial foray into the world of BBQ smoking and the online community that welcomed me, it’s clear that the insights from Matthew D. Lieberman’s “Social” offer profound lessons on the power and potential of online spaces. The sense of belonging and connection I found among fellow BBQ enthusiasts was more than just a testament to our shared hobby—it was a glimpse into the fundamental human need for social bonds and the incredible potential of digital communities to fulfill this need.

Vision for the Future

As we look to the future, it’s evident that online communities hold untapped potential to not only bring people together over shared interests but to deeply satisfy our innate social needs. By applying neuroscientific insights, community builders can create spaces that go beyond mere interaction, fostering environments where empathy, understanding, and deep, meaningful connections thrive. Imagine online communities that are not only engaging but also nurturing, mirroring the rich, complex social ecosystems found in the physical world. This vision for the future is not only possible but necessary, as digital spaces become increasingly integral to our social fabric.

Call to Action

I encourage all community builders, moderators, and members to consider how the principles discussed can be woven into the fabric of their online spaces. Whether it’s through implementing engagement strategies that leverage our brain’s reward systems, adopting moderation policies that mitigate social pain, or simply fostering a culture of empathy and cooperation, the insights from neuroscience offer a blueprint for communities that enrich our lives and satisfy our deepest social needs.

Let us strive to create online communities that reflect the best of human connection, leveraging the vast potential of digital spaces to foster bonds that are as meaningful and fulfilling as those we form face-to-face.


For those interested in going deeper into the science behind social connections and community building, here are a few recommended books:

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