Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Title of course:  Neuroscience and the Classroom: Making Connections

Neuroscience and the Classroom: Making Connections

Unit 2: The Unity of Emotion, Thinking, and Learning


Section 3:
Emotion and thinking in the sociocultural jungle

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Q: Why do we experience threats to our identity so powerfully?

Although the modern jungle poses more threats from drunk drivers, gang-bangers, and grifters than from the occasional grizzly bear, our emotions continue to work to protect us not just from contemporary predators, but also from the new dangers of the more complex social and cultural jungle we have created. In essence, we have reinterpreted survival, adding a new layer of social well-being to our continuing need for physical well-being. Today, threats to our social identity are experienced every bit as keenly as our primitive ancestors experienced physical threats; both use the same neural and chemical mechanisms. "My parents are going to kill me if I fail this course." "I'll die if I don't get into Stanford, if he doesn't ask me out, if I don't make the team, if I'm not invited to her party." On one level, these are metaphorical rather than literal expressions, but on another level they bespeak real fears of social "death." We all know stories of young people who killed themselves rather than face social humiliation.

We also know stories of inspiration and great compassion—stories of young people whose emotions have moved them to help others. Consider Pam, for example, a student from an urban neighborhood who grabbed the chance to leave the poverty and violence of her home, where, in her words—"opportunity and advancement were stifled by underfunded schools and withered dreams"—and attend a better school. There she found an adult whose belief in her taught her to "believe in someone else's story and invest in that person's life," a lesson she now applies to young people with whom she works in other cities. Pam's emotional response to the world, based on powerful experiences that have shaped her values, compels her to choose an identity that gives her a sense of well-being and health by helping others.

Human societies have become amazingly complex social and cultural worlds that expand our definition of survival. Most of the (top)

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decisions we make today determine whether we will flourish or perish in this socially and culturally constructed reality. Lev Vygotsky got it right. There is a culture that shapes our ends. Why does a high school student solve a physics problem, for example? The reasons range from the intrinsic reward of having found the solution to getting a good grade, to avoiding punishment, to helping tutor a friend, to getting into a good college, to pleasing parents or the teacher. All of our private reasons for succeeding at physics have a powerful emotional component and are connected both to pleasurable sensations and to survival within our culture—to living happily in a social world to being loved and respected. Our emotions make us social animals.

Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang
Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang
"I don't like to think of emotion and cognition as separate things. There's thinking. And thinking has an emotional aspect, and it has a cognitive aspect. You can analyze..."   – Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang
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Dr. Immordino-Yang speaking about neuroscience and teaching

Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang

"I don't like to think of emotion and cognition as separate things. There's thinking. And thinking has an emotional aspect, and it has a cognitive aspect. You can analyze one aspect or the other... but real thinking is never divorced from emotion." – Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang

Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang is an assistant professor of education at the Rossier School of Education and an assistant professor of psychology at the Brain and Creativity Institute, University of Southern California. She is a cognitive neuroscientist and educational psychologist who studies the brain bases of emotion, social interaction, and culture and their implications for development and schools.

Although what we mean by surviving and flourishing is interpreted in a cultural and social framework, our brains still work to achieve their original purpose: to adapt and manage our bodies and minds in the service of living. These emotional goals continue to operate using our primitive neural machinery (albeit with cortical upgrades) which connects our emotions to our thinking and behavior. We think in the service of emotional goals; the goals that matter to most of us—those that keep us alive both physically and socially—are what motivate us to thought and action.


Lev Vygotsky
Lev Vygotsky was a developmental psychologist whose work in the early 1900s influenced fields including child development, psychology, and education. Among many contributions, Vygotsky's work gave social contexts within which learning takes place center stage. Major implications have extended to understanding the role for a particular learner of scaffolding and support, as well as the existence of a range of performance levels.

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