Can Neuroscience Help Explain the Connection Between Emotions and Learning?

Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a neuroscientist from the University of Southern California and a former public school teacher, conducts research on how students learn based on their social backgrounds, emotions and cultural connections, and examines how these sources of variability can be leveraged in the classroom.

As a practical matter, though, Dr. Immordino-Yang, told an audience of thought leaders at the Nov. 2 Sanford Harmony Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Forum in San Diego: “How you feel is going to change whether or not you can be present in math class,” adding that emotions “are part of the thinking process — always.”

The social emotional learning-themed forum –  held by Sanford Harmony, a social emotional initiative based out of the private, nonprofit National University System San Diego headquarters – brought together representatives of school districts, education advocacy groups and youth organizations to discuss how educators can utilize social emotional learning approaches to improve school culture, increase students’ resilience to trauma and address equity in education.

All people, Dr. Immordino-Yang explained, derive meaning from their experiences, which shape, and are additionally shaped by, their values and belief systems. Skills for assessing situations while they are happening, even when all the facts are not yet available, are important for ethical and purposeful behavior. “Being able to make informed meaning of complex, dynamic situations is the essence of being an educated human being,” she said.

Dr. Immordino-Yang is a professor of education, psychology and neuroscience,  and the lead author of an Aspen Institute publication released in September –  “The Brain Basis for Integrated Social, Emotional and Academic Development.” She conducts her research by interviewing individuals about their feelings about various situations they have witnessed and true stories about others’ experiences, while also measuring the brain activity, heart rate, skin sweating, respiration, and other measures of bodily and neural functioning. She studies how individuals’ experiences and ways of feeling and thinking about situations relate to body and brain function, and how these patterns of biological activation are influenced by development, culture, education and other aspects of life experience.

She plans to embark on a new study applying the same techniques to teachers and others who work with students, “to see if we can build the most complete characterization of what expert educators actually bring to their work.”

Her studies, combined with current research on genetics and brain development, have led her to conclude that educators can have an incredible influence in children and adolescents. “The upside and downside of education now is the realization of our immense responsibility in growing children’s full potential,” she said. “Educators get it intuitively, that a brain is not a brain, it’s a person, and that how people grow and develop shapes who they are and who they are capable of becoming…It puts new weight on the way in which we think about what it means to be a human being, and on our roles as adults in supporting the growth of other, younger human beings.”