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Learning more about the mind’s labyrinth

Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Howard Gardner (Photo/Dan-Dorian Druhora)

Renowned puppeteer and “The Muppets” creator Jim Henson once said: “Kids don’t remember what we try to teach them. They remember what we are.”

What we are is a labyrinth of mind involving abstract and concrete cognitions, and bodily actions and sensations, according to Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a neuroscientist and developmental psychologist at the USC Rossier School of Education and the Brain and Creativity Institute (BCI), based at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, and Howard Gardner, professor of education and cognition at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

One’s ability to navigate the labyrinth has deep implications for the way people learn about the world they live in and themselves.

“Emotion is a piece of cognition,” Immordino-Yang explained in a recent discussion held at the USC Shoah Foundation: The Institute for Visual History and Education. “Emotions are skills just like cognitive skills [and] without emotion, your cognition has no rudder — nothing to steer it.”

Basically, one cannot divorce emotions from cognitive processes, she said. People feel what they learn, and they learn what they feel. Immordino-Yang contended that leveraging these beliefs effectively can improve education.

Most of the time, emotions are just there — simple reflexes like a rubber hammer popping a person under a knee cap. A series of superficial emoticons on Facebook: “like” and “unlike.” Fits and outbursts that individuals often attribute to a fantastic meal or lack of sleep or the movie they’re watching. Yet “higher emotional awareness” can become a mind-bending Rubik’s Cube for those who grapple with an emotional world on a daily basis.

As many people grew up, they were told not to let their emotions get in the way of learning. However, Immordino-Yang and Gardner discussed how the opposite is true: to employ emotions for effective learning — to include the learning of values as well as information — is a critical factor in becoming an educated human being.

Another topic focused on bringing together educational and neuroscientific perspectives, particularly those that centered on values, such as empathy and social cohesion. The research conducted by Immordino-Yang and University Professor Antonio Damasio of the BCI reshapes one’s understanding of social emotions.

According to their research, education in values can occur as people feel deeply moved while hearing inspirational stories about other human beings, such as stories of hardship and tragedy overcome by virtue, determination and intelligence.

The data revealed that when people reflect on these inspirational stories, even the brain stem becomes more active.

“One literally feels inspiration on the very substrate of one’s own biological survival,” Immordino-Yang said.

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