Developing Resilience: A Conversation with Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang on Learning from Emotions

By the Search Institute

One of the central questions of youth development research is: What does it mean for young people to develop resilience?

And here’s an essential follow‑up question: What does the brain have to do with it?

We can’t think of a better person to discuss this with than Dr. Mary Helen Immordino‑Yang, a professor of education, psychology, and neuroscience at the University of Southern California.

She is the author of Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience, published in 2015.

In these excerpts from the Rooted in Relationships podcast episode titled “Resilience through Relationships,” Search Institute CEO and President Dr. Benjamin Houltberg dives into a discussion of the neuroscience of relationships. He and Immordino‑Yang explore the deep learning and transformative power that occurs when young people have a sense of meaning beyond themselves.

Listen to the entire podcast here.

What Young People Need

“What young people really need is diverse perspectives. People who care about them, who are trusting, loving adults, who are there for them, thinking with them about who they are, what they aspire to be, and letting them try on different ways of thinking and try on their newfound agency and drive to think about things in a deep way, and to try to explore that bigger meaning and that purpose and, and kind of playing in that space and, and, and reflecting with them there.”—Dr. Mary Helen Immordino‑Yang

Ben: I’m really excited today about our guest, Mary Helen, and welcome Mary Helen to the podcast. And thank you so much for your time and being with us today.

Mary Helen: Thanks for having me, Ben. It’s my pleasure. I’m excited about this conversation today.

Ben: We hope that practitioners and teachers are listening to a little bit of the science as students come back to school and as they really try to get practical tips for working with kids in day‑to‑day life. I know that your mission in a lot of ways has really been to integrate science—and neuroscience in particular—into educational processes. I would love if you could tell the listeners a little bit about your story. An important part of your work is around stories and storytelling. What brought you to do this research around affective neuroscience, developmental psychology, and educational psychology?

Mary Helen: We can go back a long ways, but I’ll go back to elementary and middle school. I was not a good student in elementary school. I was a very good person. I think you could say everybody liked me. My teachers thought I was polite. I was never a problem, but I would feel relief on Friday afternoon and dread on Sunday evening.

I lived on a small farm that my parents basically had built. My parents were both from the inner city—one from Detroit and one from Yonkers—and they decided they were going to have this little farm and we were going to try to grow what we eat, as much as we could.

I was so engaged with that. I’ve always been really interested in the natural world, thinking about the ways in which we, as humans, are part of that world. And I just saw no resonance of that at all in school. It always felt like I was delinquent and not doing my homework because I’d get out of that school and I had so much stuff going on.

It’s kind of like, what goes around, comes around. I have a kid who’s turning 16 tomorrow. I remember when he started first grade. It was the first time he’d gone to school for a full long day. And you know, about two weeks in, he was crying on a Sunday night, “I don’t want to go to school.”

I asked, “Why do you not want to go to school?” And he said, “Mommy, I have so much work to do. How do you expect me to get my work done if I’m sitting in school all day?” That is how I felt as a kid. And by the time I got to sixth grade, it was a disaster.

I basically stopped going to school. I didn’t fully conceptualize it; I just didn’t wake up in the morning. And my grandma and my mom really noticed, and they could see that school was not good for me. I was under a lot of social and physical threat there. It was just not a place that was good for my well‑being at all. Luckily, my mom was home with us, and my parents could afford to let me play my piano and work on the farm and train horses and do all the stuff I was doing: teaching neighborhood kids how to ride. In the fall I started seventh grade in a different school.

That was really a turning point for me, to really be able to seriously study things that I was interested in, and to actually engage with scholarly thinking in a way that felt agentic and purposeful to me. Then throughout my education experiences, I was always really interested in, who am I, how do I experience the world? How do other people experience the world? How do people build things together? What are the cultural traditions we construct?

As I look back, I wouldn’t have known that, that I was kind of a naturalist and an anthropologist and a scientist all at once, but it’s kind of who I was as a person.

Finding and Nurturing the Spark

Ben: There are some really fascinating things in your story that I would love to pull out because I wonder how many kids are out there, girls in particular, that have that same curiosity that you had—that curiosity to want to know more, to understand science, to understand things, but were in a situation where it wasn’t a good fit with the environment. That spark that was there could have been easily interpreted as defiance, or not showing up for school as not being compliant, because often we think about good learners as being compliant. Who helped you discover that spark in high school that kept you going, that maybe even allowed you to keep that curiosity moving forward to grad school and beyond?

Mary Helen: What young people really need is diverse perspectives. People who care about them, who are trusting, loving adults, who are there for them, thinking with them about who they are, what they aspire to be, and letting them try on different ways of thinking and their newfound agency—the drive to think about things in a deep way, and to try to explore that bigger meaning and that purpose and kind of playing in that space and reflecting with them there.

I was so blessed to have several adults in my life who did that in different ways. I had an amazing horseback riding teacher that I was working with. I had an amazing guitar teacher that I’m still very close to now who was really a historian of American music. She was a dear, dear friend. And my mom, my grandmother, my aunt, my dad. They gave me the space, but also the support to have some agency in my life and to try things and to explore things and to be curious, and to try to build the bigger understanding of why things happen the way they do. And they let me do stuff. They let me do stuff.

I often think about, like you said, the huge numbers of kids like me, or smarter than me, or different than me: girls, but also kids of color, kids of Native ancestry, kids of immigrant origin, kids who are in foster care, kids who don’t have the kinds of social supports and frankly financial supports that I had as a young person.

You need a place of security and a place of deep relationships and caring to really explore and grow yourself. And so many kids don’t have that. And that is a major reason why I do the work that I do now, to try to help schools and families and parents and youth organizations and community organizations think differently about what kids really need to thrive.

I’m very concerned about adolescents. I feel like so much of what we impose upon our kids—so many of the structures and the institutional kind of organizational benchmarking and progress orientations that we expect of our adolescents—are not designed in ways that are supportive of their natural developmental, social, cognitive, scholarly, individual, personal, moral, and character‑related needs. Don’t get me wrong: There are so many amazing teachers and community leaders and church members and conservation crew corps—and all the people out there who are doing amazing work with youth.

But so many kids are caught in a system that expects them, like you said, to be complicit, to toe the line, to, to do it the way we’ve told you: “You need to do it. I give you this. You give me that. That’s the way the system works if you want to ‘succeed’ or have ‘productive failure.’”

Why are we still dividing things up into success and failure? Where’s the success? And where’s the failure in any real‑world accomplishment? Stop dichotomizing and expecting kids to conform to these ladder‑like progressions through systems that really do not support their development of intellectual virtues, the kinds of scholarly and intellectual and humanistic patterns of thinking and feeling and relating to other people and relating to yourself and reflecting on meaning that promote good citizenship and innovation and high productivity and a flourishing human.

The Power of Story

Ben: I’ve heard you speak several times, and I think one thing that always sticks out to me is that passion I hear in your voice as you think about this topic. There is this sense of purpose that’s there. And it’s connected to the little girl on the farm who found curiosity and something meaningful in being a horseback riding teacher and artist. One of the greatest travesties in the world is when a young person with so much potential has that spark but is never able to live out that potential, often because of things outside of their control, like systemic racism or oppression or lack of resources. And so I want to transition into thinking about who you are as a scientist and researcher in particular.

I want to start with this kind of discovery of what deep learning is that I’ve heard you discuss in a lot of your talks. You talked about it also in your TED Talks, about really how learning is much deeper than what we often talk about. And it’s still talked about as being a higher order, kind of functioning in our brain.

Mary Helen: When I got to USC to begin working with [neuroscientist] Antonio Damasio and Hannah Damasio, we had a conversation I’ll never forget. He basically sat down and said, “I’m really interested in how emotions are triggered by social interactions, and how they’re also shaped by our higher‑level values and beliefs about each other and about ourselves—and how emotions happen between people, even when they don’t directly pertain to the real physical wellness of each of you.

He asked, “Are you interested?” And I was like, “Absolutely.” So we had to figure out a way to study it. He had some ideas, I had some ideas, and we tried a lot of different things.

I remember this laboratory meeting that we had at the beginning of the Brain and Creativity Institute. I said, “Let me just try this one thing I’ve been working on with you.” He had been trying to make beautiful films or pieces of art, all these things that we could use to evoke these emotions, and it just wasn’t working well.

So I did something else. I just put up a picture of a nurse in Sudan. She was someone who was just an amazing human rights worker who was going out into the most dangerous and rural parts of the country and teaching women how to attend to each other’s childbirths. I just explained her story and I just stopped and said, “How does this person’s story make you feel?” Antonio had tears on his face. So the trick—actually it wasn’t a trick—is kind of obvious when you think about it. What really moves humans is the stories of other humans. So what we did was to start to bring together almost mini‑documentaries. I built the stories of people from around the world, using real footage. I was thinking I would use those in the MRI scanner to have people experience these different emotions. But what happened was that I realized to really fully appreciate a civil rights leader or a person like this woman in Sudan, you need to really understand her journey, not just what she’s doing now, but the context in which it’s happening and you need a lot of information.

I realized, I’m going to have to sit people down outside of the scanner first and tell them all the stories.

And I started doing that, and I just asked them the simple question after each one: “How does this person’s story make you feel?” What I quickly realized is that the answers people were giving to that question to that deceptively simple question were amazingly interesting and complex. I thought, okay, we need a video camera. We’re going to capture the interview and the neural data from the scanner and ask people in real time in the scanner to tell us how they’re feeling by pushing buttons, which is really all you can do from in there.

That was the first sort of development of this method that we now have adapted in many ways to study teenagers, to study people in different cultural groups around the world, to study various things.

When people subjectively at that moment in the scanner push buttons to say, I feel hugely moved by this story right now, you realize they’re saying, “I’m thinking deeply about it. It really matters to me.”

A Brain Paradox

Mary Helen: There was another insight that has really spawned a whole bunch of work for me, which I think is really important for education. We had this, at first, very paradoxical finding in the middle of the back of the head and also the middle of the frontal lobe.

There’s this characteristic set of regions that were using MRI to study all these different kinds of processing. We’ll give you math problems. We’ll give you language, we’ll give you scary snakes. We give you pornography. And we see what happens right in the brain. But what would happen if we basically just put people in the scanner and ask them to do something really effortful and cognitively demanding, but then to contrast that with, “Think about nothing, just relax and be here and don’t fall asleep, but don’t think about anything particular”?

And what they found was that these regions of the brain that are in the core of the brain were massively activated for the condition of resting and deactivated when people were doing this really effortful, what we call n‑back task in psychology.

That kind of presented a weird conundrum. How could it be that these tissues, which are among the most metabolically expensive in the human body, are activating when you’re doing nothing and deactivating when you’re doing something really difficult and mentally effortful?

We were asking somebody to do an effortful task on cue: “How do you feel about the story? How deeply are you engaged with it? What does it mean to you? How emotionally moving is it to you?”

That was a major insight for us, which was that these systems that are activated when you’re resting are activated because our so‑called default is to think about the bigger meaning—it’s to build a story, it’s to let your mind transcend the real physical here and now and daydream about things that don’t exist yet.

That’s driving a lot of our work now: How do these networks play into the meaningful, deep, emotionally engaged self—all kinds of narratives that young people come to learn to build around themselves, their communities, the social world around them, but also intellectual and scholarly ways of understanding things?

Emotions = Learning

Ben: Practitioners and teachers are engaging with young people who have gone through some traumatic experiences of social unrest and injustice and seeing a lot of these things that were going on in our society as well some of the isolation of being away from their friends.

And we are relational people—our learning is relational. Can you talk a little bit about some things that teachers and practitioners can do as they’re welcoming kids back or engaging young people after this year?

Mary Helen: What this year is begging us to do is to step back and think about, what is education? What counts as a meaningful opportunity for learning? Especially in adolescents, what really counts as a meaningful opportunity for learning is the ability to experience understanding, to feel the power of your own and other people’s curiosity to engage with the here and now. These kinds of connections between the instrumental skills and knowledge you need to have, and the big ideas that knowledge constructs into and serves—that is the essence of meaningful educational experience.

And you can think of it that, you know, basically whatever you’re having emotion about, you are thinking about, and whatever you’re thinking about, you have the possibility of learning.

Ben: Wait, so say that one more time. That’s really good.

Mary Helen: Whatever you’re having emotion about is what you’re thinking about.

Emotion is the starting place for learning. It’s the rudder on the back of the ship. So what we need to really do, I think, in education right now is shift our focus from kids and teachers and families and parents having emotions that mainly pertain to outcomes. Did you achieve X outcome successfully? Which is what that whole “learning loss” narrative comes from.

And shift to emotions about ideas. How do we get our young people that are teachers to really engage in working and thinking together about the power of the ideas that scholarship enables? What does it mean to understand the world mathematically? What does it mean to produce a piece of art or literature or music that helps others understand the nature of a kind of experience?

What does it mean to really appreciate what gravity is and how it’s organizing the universe we live in? Those big ideas, connecting those ideas to daily work. You know, you can’t do it for somebody, and this is the work and the art of teaching. You need to set up opportunities to think together around projects, around experiences, around things.

What it really means for teachers now is we need to step back and think about what is the subjective experience of the learners. As a teacher, your job basically is to help kids learn, to expand the kinds of ideas.

You be the one that helps them figure out the direction in which they’re driving. Take the time to stop and be with them, think with them, and then be looking for opportunities to infuse scholarly skills into that search.

Why don’t you use your documentary filmmaking talents to go document this and share with the class? Why don’t you use your writing to interview and to write accounts of this situation? Use your math, use your history, to understand the current social justice situation.

Talk with each other, talk with people who are different than you and systematically engage in this purposeful way in meaning building.

You want to think, how can we—an institution, a school, a community, or a family—how can we set young people up, remove barriers to, and obstacles to opportunities so that they can build it for themselves as efficiently as possible?

Ben: That’s the way to think about it. That’s beautiful. Giving young people a sustainable motivation. I’ve heard it said that when pain gets transformed into purpose, it’s one of the most powerful motivators in the world.

And so that’s the hope—that we can help young people find meaning and be able to transform it into a purpose that changes our world.

Thank you so much, Mary Helen, for your time. I really appreciate it.

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