Welcome back to the Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning podcast, episode #100—this episode is a very special one, that comes full circle for all of the listeners who have ever wondered, “what exactly is the neuroscience of social and emotional learning?”
Today, this question will be solved with Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, who is a Professor of Education, Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Southern California and Director of the USC Center for Affective Neuroscience, Development, Learning and Education (CANDLE)[i]. She studies the psychological and neurobiological development of emotion and self-awareness, and connections to social, cognitive and moral development in educational settings. What I find to be powerful about Dr. Mary Helen is that although she is a former public junior-high-school science teacher, who went on to earn her doctorate at Harvard University and has received numerous awards for her work and research, she is able to set us straight when it comes to understanding how the emotions we have with others, and our social interactions can change our brain, and literally shape who we are, with powerful findings that she can prove with FMRI scans.
Welcome Mary Helen, it’s beyond incredible to finally have this opportunity to speak with you, after studying your work when I first started on this mission to learn and understand the basics of neuroscience back in 2015 when an educator urged me to take this path to integrate neuroscience into the programs I had developed for the school market. I’m sure I first saw you speaking somewhere with Dr. Daniel Siegel, who we had on with episode #28[ii] on “Mindsight: The Basis of Social and Emotional Intelligence” then when I saw you come on his PEPP MWE UP Community Chats this past July[iii], I immediately reached out to speak with you when I saw that your life’s work provides the evidence for the powerful connection with neuroscience and social and emotional learning.
Thank you so much for being here today. Dr. Daniel Siegel said this, and I have to repeat it, because your research truly has shown incredible pioneering and achievement when it comes to showing through your social-emotion experiments, how what we think, feel and the emotions that we have—can physically change the structure of our brains. I am so grateful to have you here today and after writing your questions, I decided that it made perfect sense to have your interview as the 100th episode, to show the impact that we can have when we connect neuroscience to social and emotional learning.
Q1: You said it really well on Dan’s event, and I have put this link in the show notes so you don’t have to repeat what you said there, but can you share how you started to look at the connection with the social and emotional brain. You mention that in 2001/2002 there wasn’t much out there on culture and the brain, and then when you looked at emotion, it was just some basic stuff about the amygdala lighting up with certain emotions, and the social brain was still in its infancy. Where did this idea begin to work with Antonio Damasio[iv] measuring brain activity and connecting our relationships and emotions to our future results?
My thoughts: When I was urged by a school administrator to write another book that included the most current brain research to the programs I was offering schools in Arizona through a Character Education Grant, I began to look for those who were out in the world, teaching educational neuroscience. I found Judy Willis, and Dan Siegel, David Sousa who was showing how the brain learns to read, and some others, but wanted to find those who saw how neuroscience connected to social and emotional learning (the name of the podcast) because I saw how these social skills were changing the results of students, I just wasn’t measuring their brains in FMRI scanners. Your work really is bringing the research to re-think the next generation’s educational experience.
Q2: I watched one of your earlier presentations from 2012 called “We Feel, Therefore We Learn”[v] where you talk about some of your early social-emotion experiments. Can you share in a nutshell how our brain changes when we feel inspired or compassionate towards another human being? I found this fascinating!
My thoughts: It’s interesting to me because I worked with high school students with Character Ed Grant and one of the activities was to write out who they wanted to be in 10 years, create a vision for themselves. They found this activity really difficult and as I started to study and read more about the teenage brain, I thought that their prefrontal cortex is not fully developed yet, so this planning activity might take them some time. Out of a class of 30 students, maybe 5 could quickly write out their path of where they are now, and where they wanted to go. After some time, they all had a plan created, but I wonder what you are seeing with your work with students in the classrooms that you are measuring now. Is this something they could easily tell you?
Q3: We all want our children (if we are parents) or students (if we are educators) to be successful, and you have some research that shows how a child reacts to an unfair situation can predict certain things about their brain. Can you explain concrete talk vs abstract talk, and how they are associated with a specific developmental trajectory of the brain?
My Thoughts: We’ve all heard of the marshmallow experiment[vi], and how delaying gratification predicted future success in children. When I heard this, of course I did the experiment with my children and am always working on this skill with them. Do you think that these findings would make a case for integrating this thinking into classroom work for improved function of the brain?
WE WILL ADDRESS THESE QUESTIONS IN EPISODE #101 since we ran out of time here.
Q4: You talk about how the brain networks rework at different stages in our life, like in adolescence with hormonal shifts that coincide with puberty, and relationships as well as how our brains change as we transition to parenting. Can you explain how our brains were designed to support us at these different life stages?
My thoughts: It’s interesting when life is just happening and then you have an experience with a life-changing moment, as a parent, where you seem to gear down and get a bit more serious. I would like to understand what’s happening on the brain level to make this occur.
Q5: What is your vision for the research you are doing? What changes do you think are possible to help our future generations think more deeply, more abstract, and reach higher levels of capability?
My thoughts: The Pandemic disrupted at a time when change was past due, for many years. How can school admin/parents/teachers take your research and make improvements to what wasn’t working before? What about educational publishers? How can your work be integrated into mainstream curriculum? (I see brain-boost boxes being added in the margins of teacher manuals with tips for how this activity is impacting the brain).
Mary-Helen, I want to thank you very much for taking the time to speak with me today. I find your work fascinating, and really am grateful to have found you all those years ago. Thank you for pioneering the way in this field, and for sharing your work so graciously. I will continue to follow your work, and see the vision you are creating for a better world for student learning.
Dr. Mary Helen Immorindo-Yang is a Professor of Education, Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Southern California. A former public junior-high-school science teacher, she earned her doctorate at Harvard University. She holds an NSF CAREER award and is serving on the NAS committee writing How People Learn II. In 2015-2016 she was chosen as one of 30 scholars to participate in the AERA’s Knowledge Forum initiative. She has received numerous national awards, is the inaugural recipient of the International Mind, Brain and Education Society (IMBES) award for Transforming Education through Neuroscience and was elected 2016-2018 IMBES president.
A former urban public junior high-school science teacher, she earned her doctorate at Harvard University in 2005 in human development and psychology and completed her postdoctoral training in social-affective neuroscience with Antonio Damasio in 2008. Since then she has received numerous awards for her research and for her impact on education and society, among them an Honor Coin from the U.S. Army, a Commendation from the County of Los Angeles, a Cozzarelli Prize from the Proceedings of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences editorial board, and early career achievement awards from the AERA, the AAAS, the APS, the International Mind, Brain and Education Society (IMBES), and the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences Foundation (FABBS). Immordino-Yang is a Spencer Foundation mid-career fellow.
Dr.Mary Helen is currently the Director of the USC Center for Affective Neuroscience, Development, Learning and Education (CANDLE) is to bring educational innovation and developmental affective neuroscience into partnership, and to use what is learned to guide the transformation of schools, policy, and the student and teacher experience for a healthier and more equitable society.