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The Learning Brain: Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Ed.M.’98, Ed.D.’05

Posted: June 25, 2008

By Jill Anderson

Long before Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Ed.M.’98, Ed.D.’05, was researching the brain and helping Professor Kurt Fischer to map out the Mind, Brain, and Education Program, she worked as a seventh grade science teacher in Randolph, Mass., yearning to learn more about the relationship between language and cognition in her students.

Immordino-Yang never imagined that, in less than 10 years, she would receive the first Transforming Education through Neuroscience Award, presented in February by the Learning & the Brain Conference and the International Mind, Brain, and Education Society. “It’s really exciting, in particular because [the award] is starting to solidify that the field is going forward and becoming recognized as contributing valid new interdisciplinary research,” she says. “Mind, Brain, and Education is becoming accepted in the mainstream.”

While taking night classes through the Harvard Extension School and working as a teacher, Immordino-Yang realized she needed more time to study how children learn so she applied to the master’s program at HGSE. A few weeks into her first semester, she solidified her decision to pursue doctoral studies.

While at HGSE, she used combined neuropsychological and human developmental methods to conduct original research about emotional and social functioning in two boys missing half their brains. Her research with these boys had interesting implications, suggesting that learners may try to “compensate for relative neuropsychological weaknesses” in part by processing information differently. This discovery reconfirmed that not all learners solve problems in the same way. It also showed one way in which brain science can inform education. Specifically, Immordino-Yang found that the boys’ social and emotional desires and predispositions, in the context of supportive educational environments, appeared to guide and organize their recoveries.

Today, Immordino-Yang works with esteemed neuroscientist Antonio Damasio as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Southern California, where much of her work builds on what she learned at the Ed School. “I use [what I learned at HGSE] every day,” she says. “I definitely use my qualitative and quantitative skills from HGSE, as well as the constructivist, contextualized approach to understanding neurological, socioemotional, and psychological dimensions of learning.”

By looking at how social emotions shape and reflect brain development across cultures, Immordino-Yang’s research has the power to impact education globally in the future.

“If we can see biological changes and predispositions in people based on social experience in different cultures, then it begins to outline an interdependence between brain development and our social world,” she says. For instance, how people process emotions like admiration, awe, inspiration, and compassion helps form the moral fabric of society. These emotions reflect biological predispositions, and involve the neural systems for consciousness and “self.” They can also play a tremendous role in shaping how a student feels in the classroom, as well as how they learn and develop identity.

Take, for example, a multifaceted emotion like admiration, where a student may admire the skill of a basketball player or the virtue of a leader like Gandhi. Immordino-Yang’s early results suggest that while both examples of admiration engage the brain’s systems for supporting the self and body, neurological differences between these sides of the emotion hint at an intriguing story that may prove to reflect qualitatively different aspects of self-awareness and consciousness. This could eventually translate into the classroom and influence how a child may feel about peers and teachers, especially regarding cultural and temperamental differences in identity development and how children learn.  

“Social processing, ethical decisionmaking, emotion, and consciousness are neurologically codependent and intertwined with cognitive systems [in the brain],” she says. “As a result, your approach to social relationships and the emotions you have toward role models, teachers, and peers will change the way you think about non-social concepts like math or democracy or political issues like the death penalty. These systems shift the way you think about problems and make decisions about your behaviors.”

Over time, Immordino-Yang hopes her research will have implications for education in a global world. “I would like to discover basic principles that describe the interactions between psychosocial and biological development, to better understand how people grow and interact in cultural contexts,” she says. “Ultimately, I hope that such principles could be used to improve education worldwide so that people can get along with and understand each other better.”

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