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An inspirational look at poetry

An Inspirational Look at Poetry
USC neuroscientist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang

Like it or not, most people take work home with them. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a neuroscientist and educational psychologist at USC, takes inspiration from home to work.

Dissecting four poems written by her daughter Nora between the ages of 6 and 9, Immordino-Yang explores in a new work the way in which children interpret their world using familiar emotional models – and, conversely, the way they express those emotions using concrete examples from the world around them. The poems show that a child’s search for meaning in social relationships and scientific concepts are integrated, she said.

For example, in one poem, 6-year-old Nora tries to explain her family’s great love for her brother Teddy by comparing it to the size of the Earth; in another, 8-year-old Nora uses her understanding of friendship to understand environmentalism and caring for the planet.

“Children interpret what they learn about the world in terms of their own social relationships and emotions, and they bring their emotional experiences to understanding the world,” said Immordino-Yang, who has a joint appointment at the USC Rossier School of Education and the Brain and Creativity Institute, housed at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Her analysis will appear in an article titled “Musings on the Neurobiological and Evolutionary Origins of Creativity” this month in LEARNing Landscapes, a peer-reviewed journal that bridges theory and practice in education.

Immordino-Yang has presented her findings to educators from all over the world, and she hopes it will help teachers better understand the connections between knowledge and emotion in a child’s developing brain.

Rather than treating social skills and academic learning as completely separate, the goal is to help children to become socially responsible learners who consider their own and others’ actions, she said.

“If you just focus on rote skills, then what is learning for?” she said.

Social connections are hardwired into our brains, Immordino-Yang said, pointing to her team’s studies that show activation in the brain stem – which governs some of the most rudimentary functions of our bodies – when participants feel strong emotions about other people.

“That’s why we’re so willing to die for ideas. That’s why we’re so moved by our relationships,” she said. “Our social relationships get their power by hooking themselves into the same neurobiological systems whose job it is to keep us alive and make our hearts beat. Our very biology is to be social.”

This deep rooting of emotional understanding harkens back to a period in human evolution when it may have provided an edge in surviving a world full of dangers, she said.

An excerpt from the paper stated: “Survival in the savanna depends on a brain that is wired to make sense of the environment and to play out things it notices through patterns of bodily and mental reactions … Is that a poisonous snake or a vine? This same brain, the same logic, helps us make sense of and survive the social world today. Does that look on my teacher’s face suggest displeasure or approval?”

Immordino-Yang has no shortage of inspiration for her work – she said she already has begun exploring her son’s paintings as well.

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