APS Member Immordino-Yang Receives Cozzarelli Prize



APS Member Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, University of Southern California, has received the 2009 Cozzarelli Prize from the Editorial Board of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The Cozzarelli Prize is awarded to articles reflecting excellence and originality in the scientific disciplines represented in the National Academy of Sciences. The six winning 2009 papers were selected for the award from the more than 3,700 papers published by PNAS last year. Immordino-Yang’s article, which explores the neural correlates of admiration and compassion, was picked as the most outstanding in the Behavioral and Social Sciences (the full article is available at http://www.pnas.org/content/106/19/8021.full.pdf+html).

Originally a junior high school teacher, Immordino-Yang earned her Doctorate of Education in Human Development and Psychology in 2005 from Harvard University. She soon began researching affective neuroscience and its applications with her mentors Antonio Damasio (a co-author on the winning paper) and Robert Rueda as a post-doctoral fellow at USC, where she is now an assistant professor of both education and psychology. Using an interdisciplinary psychosocial and neuroscientific approach, she focuses on the dynamics  of social emotions and self across cultures and their implications for development, learning, and schools.

In the research that was the subject of her award winning paper, Immordino-Yang and colleagues tested several hypotheses about the activation of homeostatic, somatosensory, and consciousness related neural systems during the processing of several social emotions. Through the use of narratives, the team was able to induce four distinct emotional states in research subjects: admiration for virtue (AV), admiration for skill (AS), compassion for social/psychological pain (CSP), and compassion for physical pain (CPP). These conditions allowed researchers to observe pain related and non-pain related social emotions across two dimensions: emotions about other people’s social/psychological conditions (AV, CSP) and emotions about other people’s physical conditions (AS, CPP). Using interviews, fMRI and psychophysiological recording, Immordino-Yang corroborated several previous theoretical accounts which predicted activity in the anterior insula, anterior cingulate, hypothalamus, and mesencephalon with these emotions. The study also revealed a unique pattern of activity in the posteromedial cortices that is hypothesized to correspond to different dimensions of the self.

This award winning paper marks a milestone in the emerging field of affective neuroscience. “I think that the choice of this paper for the Cozzarelli Prize,” said Immordino-Yang, “speaks to the promise of interdisciplinary approaches in the scientific study of complex, subjective mental states like social emotions.” Prior to this study, there had been no comprehensive attempts to research the use of homeostatic and consciousness related neural systems in emotionally reacting to the psychological and physical conditions of others. There had also been very little investigation into the neurological underpinnings of positive, approach-oriented emotions like admiration.

For more information, see http://www.pnas.org/site/misc/cozzarelliprize.shtml.

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