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The shape of emotions to come

USC assistant professor Mary Helen Immordino-Yang studies social emotions. (Photo/Steve Cohn)

How do culture and environment shape how we — and our brains — experience social emotions and self?

That’s one of the intriguing domains Professor Mary Helen Immordino-Yang is exploring as part of her most recent research funded by a $600,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) Career Award.

During adolescence, bodies and brains are transformed into adult selves, and a massive amount of perceptions, actions, emotions, memories and experiences shape that process.

Immordino-Yang, assistant professor of education at the USC Rossier School of Education, is particularly interested in social emotions that promote learning, motivation and resilience, such as compassion, admiration and inspiration. She is learning how these emotions develop in young people — studying both the teens’ meaning-making and their neural activity over time.

“The ways we think and imagine and feel things about ourselves and the social world are actually organizing and organized by individual differences in the way our brain activates,” she explained. “It’s impossible to know which came first — the thought pattern or the brain pattern. Your habits and certain acculturated thought patterns potentially shape your neurobiology, and this in turn potentially shapes your experiences and meaning-making about self and the social world.”

The NSF study, which looks at students in three Los Angeles-area high schools in neighborhoods with different ethnic compositions and a high frequency of community violence, is following Latino and Asian-American teens over their four years of middle adolescence. During this time period, teens develop identities that are more associated with their peer groups and who feel emotions amid the stressors around them.

It is the first project to investigate how community violence and culture can influence the way social emotions, self-identity and inspiration surrounding one’s future develop on a neurobiological and psychosocial level. The study will include neuroimaging with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging brain scans and a series of interviews.

Though many scholars have observed that different cultures express their emotions in different ways, recent research is beginning to explore how cultural factors influence the experience of an emotion and its manifestation in brain activity. In previous studies, Immordino-Yang found that groups with different cultural norms reported experiencing emotions similarly, but she discovered that an individual’s experiences corresponded to brain activity in cultural patterns.

The new NSF study will look at individual and cultural differences among adolescents with low socioeconomic status who are doing well in school.

“Adolescence is a time when kids are really coming to understand and own themselves in ways they don’t in childhood and are really starting to think abstractly and prospectively about their own futures,” said Immordino-Yang, also assistant professor of psychology at the Brain and Creativity Institute, housed at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

She added: “They’re struggling to reconcile their own beliefs and values with those of their families and cultural heritage, with expectations in school and also with social interactions modeled in the neighborhood, which are too often not good.”

Immordino-Yang is at the forefront of research in this field in which neuroscience intersects with the psychology of learning and motivation.

“I’m so astounded by the beauty of the data. It is just outrageous what you find if you put someone in a scanner and ask them how they feel,” she said. “The cultural influences on correspondences between individuals’ subjective experiences and their neural activations are striking.”

At the conclusion of her study, Immordino-Yang will develop and test a curriculum that teaches the adolescents social emotional awareness and skills for mindfulness and reflection. She also plans to work with community members to develop curricula that implement scientific insights and honor the participants’ cultural heritage.

Using findings from her studies of students at the three high schools, Immordino-Yang will create educational materials that promote compassion, well-being, resilience and academic achievement among at-risk urban youth, and will develop and test these materials with young people who will participate in a summer science camp.

Results from the studies and the summer camp will then inform a curriculum that will be implemented through partnerships with Mental Health America, The Ball Foundation and Annenberg Media, as well as through a series of workshops held for teachers around the world by Immordino-Yang.

The findings will also be featured in a free, online course for educators at

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