Mary Helen Immordino-Yang

This is a photo of Mary Helen Immordino-YangUniversity of Southern California – Brain and Creativity Institute and the Rossier School of Education

What does your research focus on?

I use an interdisciplinary approach that combines affective and social neuroscience, human development psychology, and educational psychology. My research has two branches: One focuses on the development of psychological, neural, and psychophysiological bases of social emotion, social learning, and self across cultures; the other focuses on translating and applying the results of this research within educational contexts.

What drew you to this line of research? Why is it exciting to you?

I came to this work as a public-school junior-high science teacher, where I was intrigued by the ways that my students’ cultural backgrounds and social relationships seemed to influence their conceptual development. I was also much influenced by my own cross-cultural experiences abroad in Kenya, Russia, France, and other countries.

My academic path was interdisciplinary and somewhat circuitous, since I was following a problem rather than a disciplinary field. Although philosophers and poets had for centuries debated what it feels like to be a person in a social world, the inherent subjectivity and privacy of this experience had largely been considered scientifically intractable. Using neuroimaging technologies in conjunction with human developmental approaches for eliciting and analyzing reports of conscious experience, I began to think it may be possible to systematically probe the conscious and nonconscious biopsychological mechanisms by which our experiences, meaning-making, and emotions contribute to social development and self awareness.

Who were/are your mentors or psychological influences?

I am incredibly fortunate to have been encouraged and taught by multiple wise mentors, in human development most notably by Kurt Fischer, my graduate advisor, and Howard Gardner, Catherine Snow, and David Rose, all at Harvard Graduate School of Education. In affective neuroscience, Antonio Damasio graciously invited me to be his postdoc at the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, where I continue to be mentored by him and Hanna Damasio. Robert Rueda, at the USC Rossier School of Education, helps me to bridge between my neuroscience research and application in the field of educational psychology. I have benefited since early grad school from working closely with a veteran teacher/practitioner, Denny Blodget, and with David Daniel, who helps me consider the needs of educators. Several historical psychological figures have also influenced my thinking, most notably Vygotsky, Piaget, Freud, and James, all for different reasons.

To what do you attribute your success in the science?

I think that being trained in more than one discipline has been useful, both because it forces me to continually explain and defend my ideas, methods, and evidence to people who are unfamiliar with some aspect of the approach, and because it affords me a broader range of tools and models to pull from. On top of this, I devote considerable energy to helping teachers and school administrators negotiate the practical challenges associated with teaching and learning in multicultural and urban schools. Moving between lab and school contexts often helps me see the weaknesses in my arguments and the holes in my evidence.

From a practical perspective, the support of my family, especially my husband (also an academic) and my parents and in-laws, makes it possible for me to balance a family and a career.

What’s your future research agenda?

At present, I am particularly fascinated by “prosocial” emotions — emotions like admiration for virtue, awe, inspira tion, gratitude, and compassion — that can profoundly motivate us to toward purposeful action on the one hand, and toward self-reflection and introspection on the other. I would like to understand how the cognitive evaluations that lead to these feelings, arguably unique to adult humans in their fully developed form, co-opt basic neurological mechanisms and drives, such as those for consciousness, homeostatic regulation and bodily sensation. I am also studying how this co-opting process may be organized by cultural values and practices and by social learning in educational settings, and how styles of socialization may interact with biological predispositions in normal development and in mental illness.

Any advice for even younger psychological scientists? What would you tell someone just now entering graduate school or getting their PhD?

Relentlessly follow only those problems that seem most exciting and pressing, but pursue them thoroughly and reflectively and without cutting corners or adopting unnecessary disciplinary blinders. Solicit feedback from people you respect whenever you have the opportunity, especially those who may credibly challenge your thinking. And finally, make the effort to share your ideas and enthusiasm with nonscientists — you’ll have fun, excite others about psychological science, and may even glean new research ideas or interpretations from the discussions.

What publication you are most proud of or feel has been most important to your career?

Although it is not my publication with the highest impact or visibility, I particularly like:

Immordino-Yang, M. H. (2010),Toward a microdevelopmental, interdisciplinary approach to social emotion. Emotion Review, 2, 217–220.

This paper was the first time I articulated in writing how I see techniques and thinking from human development psychology and affective neuroscience coming together to build a scientific framework for studying complex, subjective experiences like self-awareness and social emotions.

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