“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.”
We recently we spoke to Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a neuroscientist, developmental psychologist, and an associate professor of education at USC, about her research and its potential implications for educational change. Her work explores the inextricable link between the development and function of the brain and sociocultural experiences, particularly emphasizing the neuropsychological basis for rest and the opportunities and constraints that educational settings create for rest. Below, we share a brief summary of our conversation, touching on Dr. Immordino-Yang’s background, her work, and her new book, Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience (Norton, 2015), which will be released next month.
Among other influences, Dr. Immordino-Yang came to her current work on the social brain and the power of rest through an interest in language and culture. During her undergraduate work, she studied languages as varied as Kiswahili and Russian. These studies translated well to her first job, teaching in a school in Boston where over eighty languages were represented. In her teaching, Dr. Immordino-Yang frequently engaged and observed language learning and interaction within the school. Her interest in how cultures build, navigate, and employ language led her to graduate work in education and psychology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. At Harvard, she pursued her interests in development, biology and culture, merging these disparate fields in questions of education “to learn about cognitive neuroscience…what is now affective and social neuroscience.” Early in her doctoral work she began developing her current lines of research when she realized that “not very much was known about the social brain.”
After completing her doctoral work, Dr. Immordino-Yang undertook postdoctoral training with Antonio Damasio at the Brain and Creativity Institute and later joined the faculty at USC. At USC, her work has focused on the relationship between mind and brain, as she put it, “applying studies of affective neuroscience to the social realm.” From her perspective, “the biological mechanisms by which we experience emotions, and by which culture shapes the mind, are not clear.” Therefore, her work aims to illuminate what she considers an understudied and inextricable link between sociocultural experiences and neurological processes. For her, the social world and the biological world do not function as separate entities. Instead, the two are deeply related and in fact interdependent on each other. She says that “the mind is one job the brain does. So, we can’t say that one is causing the other. Our social world…facilitates and organizes our biological development, which in turn builds our interpretations of the social world.”
Within education, Dr. Immordino-Yang argues that “we should build educational theories around what is biologically possible.” At the same time, she approaches her work by asking “how culture shapes knowing and being. How do we build complex types of experiences that are culturally shaped?” She contends that this understanding helps educators and researchers recognize students’ complex identities. Extending this line of inquiry, she is currently working on a cross-cultural study in Los Angeles, looking at children from immigrant families and, “how kids cross cultures and…how relationships are reflected in their biological selves.”
Among the applications for this research in schooling, Dr. Immordino-Yang suggests that “education’s main purpose is to teach people skills and habits of mind for interpreting and understanding situations in any domain of knowledge.” If sociocultural and neurological are so deeply linked, she argues, schooling must also account for these dynamics. Already-existing approaches such as project-based learning may take such dynamics into account by integrating work and play. Additionally, Dr. Immordino-Yang’s research suggests schools need to create space for children to construct their own narratives for meaning making and understanding. These changes are “not just superficial,” Dr. Immordino-Yang explains. “They are actually hooking [students] into different biological mechanisms that allow them to tie actions to their internal, grander sense of self.” Furthermore, such work allows educators to rethink their very understandings of what learning is.
Dr. Immordino-Yang also talked about her upcoming book, where she outlines a case for the educationally productive use of rest. “What this means,” she says, “is giving time and skills to help people reflect” on their experiences. By creating space for rest (both unstructured time and literal rest) she argues that educators can introduce opportunities for imagination, daydreaming, and creativity. Time for rest, she added, can promote deep reflection, and habits of mind that support healthy learning and development.