NSF CAREER Study: How Culture Shapes Emotional Development

Mary Helen Immordino-Yang

Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang

By Andrea Bennett

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

This is one of the intriguing domains Professor Mary Helen Immordino-Yang is exploring with her most recent research, funded by a prestigious $600,000 National Science Foundation CAREER grant.

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

Immordino-Yang is particularly interested in social emotions that promote learning, motivation and resilience, such as compassion, admiration and inspiration. She is studying how these emotions develop in urban 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.”

Her NSF study investigates students in three Los Angeles area high schools in neighborhoods with different ethnic compositions and with a high frequency of community violence. She is following Latino and Asian American teens over the four years of middle adolescence. During this time period, teens develop identities that are more associated with their peer groups, become acculturated to a more adult world, and 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 about one’s future develop neurobiologically and psychosocially. Her longitudinal study will include neuro-imaging with fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) brain scans and a series of interviews.

Many people have observed that different cultures express their emotions in different ways, but research is just 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 found that individuals’ experiences corresponded to brain activity in cultural patterns.

This NSF study will look at individual and cultural differences among ambitious, low socioeconomic status 9th to 12th grade adolescents 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,” she said.

“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, where neuroscience meets 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. 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, working with community members to develop curricula that implement scientific insights and honor the participants’ cultural heritage. Using findings from her study 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 science summer camp.

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

The findings will also be featured in a free, online course for educators, found at: www.learner.org/courses/neuroscience.

This article was featured in the June, 2013 Issue of Rossier Reach