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The Brain Alchemist

15 practices to deepen human connection and engagement online

by Anastasia on July 28, 2010

Only connect!
That was the whole of her sermon.
Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted,
And human love will be seen at its height.
Live in fragments no longer.
Only connect…

~ E.M. Forester, “Howads End”

ConnectionOur brains are social.  We have a special set of neurons, called “mirror” neurons, to help us with our human connections.  When we interact with others, the mirror neurons in the brain help us understand other people’s intentions, feelings, and emotions.  They enable us to empathize with others.

Recent studies demonstrate that mirror neurons are located in more areas of the human brain than previously thought.  The researchers recorded them in motor regions of the brain and also in areas involved in vision and memory.  Mirror neurons explain how we can get better at sports, for example, by watching others who are good at it.  Our mirror neurons in motor regions are at work even when we sit still and observe.  They also explain why we tend to mirror the body language of people who we like when we interact with them, which helps us build rapport.

Deep human connection may also cause our brains to synchronize.  In the Wired article “Good Connection Really Does Lead to Mind Meld,” Brandon Keim reports that brain scans of a speaker and listener showed their neural activity synchronizing during storytelling.  The more the story resonated with the participants, the more synchronization the researchers observed.  Scientists speculate that they may be able to see even stronger brain synchronization when people are engaged in deep conversations, a hypothesis that they plan to test.

Interestingly, when we are alone and bored, our brain tends to ruminate on the negative aspects of our lives. In contrast, social ties with like-minded individuals who share the same hopes and dreams positively correlate with success and well-being.

In another study, psychological scientists Matthias R. Mehl, Shannon E. Holleran, and C. Shelby Clark from the University of Arizona, along with Simine Vazire of Washington University in St. Louis investigated whether happy and unhappy people differ in the types of conversations they tend to engage in. Their findings suggest that the happy life is social and conversationally deep rather than solitary and superficial:

The happiest participants spent 25% less time alone and 70% more time talking than the unhappiest participants. In addition to the difference in the amount of social interactions happy and unhappy people had, there was also a difference in the types of conversations they took part in: The happiest participants had twice as many substantive conversations and one third as much small talk as the unhappiest participants.

Not only pleasant social interactions open our own minds to possibilities and help us see the world in a more positive light, social connections – friends, family, neighbors or colleagues – improve our odds of survival by 50 percent. Here is how low social interaction compares to more well-known risk factors:

  • Equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day
  • Equivalent to being an alcoholic
  • More harmful than not exercising
  • Twice as harmful as obesity

The take-away is that people crave connection, meaning, a sense of purpose and contribution.  It’s often easier to connect on a deeper level face-to-face.  But what practices nurture meaningful interactions and engagement online?  Here are a few ideas:

  1. Be yourself.  Avoid sounding like a faceless corporate entity. Show vulnerability. Show your passion.
  2. Be a connector, shine a spotlight on your social network friends, introduce people if you think they should meet.
  3. Interview your social network friends for your blog or podcast and post the links to the interviews through social media channels.
  4. Celebrate other people’s achievements and important occasions.
  5. Ask people for advice and favors.  People like to help.  Helping others gives them a sense of autonomy and choice, which is a reward to the brain.
  6. Use videos and audios to deepen the connection with your audience, activate the mirror neurons and synchronize the brains.
  7. Ask open-ended questions: who, what, when, where, how, why, etc.
  8. Add value to discussions through your comments and replies.
  9. Host online chats and events where people can talk about a specific topic for a longer stretch of time.
  10. Organize a local meetup or tweetup for your online friends to meet in person.
  11. Encourage good tone and friendliness.  Be thoughtful about how your language comes across online. Avoid defensive and abrasive language. Remember that people can’t see your body language or hear the tone of your voice.
  12. Apologize when you make a mistake.
  13. Express gratitude and reciprocate when somebody does something nice for you.
  14. Promptly resolve misunderstandings and conflicts.  Consider when a direct private message to a person may be more appropriate than a public comment.
  15. Give support and encouragement.

What would you add to the list?

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