The Williams School Speaker Series
11/13/15 Kathleen O’Beirne for CCC
The first speaker in the school’s 125th anniversary speaker series was Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Ed.D., an alumna of the school who is now Associate Professor of Education, Psychology, and Neuroscience at the University of Southern California. A triple department member is most unusual, and her research is remarkable in its multi-disciplinary look at how our brain utilizes our body’s basic functioning areas to grow our sense of self at the highest level. When there are enough experiences/ stimulation, our inner self thrives; conversely, a lack thereof impacts both our intellectual and physical development.
Her talk was titled, “Rest is Not Idleness in the Brain: Insights for Education from Neuroscientific Research on Social Emotion and Self.” I was invited to attend (I presumed from the CCC list of contacts). The other 150 in attendance at the Thames Club were current students and their parents, faculty, and representatives from non-profits. I thought the turnout and the intense interest in the topic underscores the viability of CCC potentially inviting Dr. Frances Jensen to speak in the fall of 2016 (author of The Teenage Brain). While very detailed in the aspects of her research work, she left me wishing that she had given more examples of strategies for students, parents, and educators to enhance the capability of controlling one’s “day-dreaming aspect” (play!), which is where abstract thought is nurtured, and one’s return to “reality,” i.e., focus on the present. She noted that those who can migrate “elegantly” between these two domains/ cognitive functions are those who represent the highest level of human achievement.
She said that “the brain is both shaped by and shaping its environment. Our brain is entirely dependent upon interactions with others – our complex intellectual development is based on our education and loving support.” “The secret is to call up emotions in a safe place, examine them, and take control of them.” “Meaningful learning always involves emotions. You remember whatever you have emotion about. Therefore, a closer relationships with one’s parents makes teens more resilient – they can regulate their emotions more readily.”
“The way in which your brain develops is based on how you use your brain. Tribes whose traditions and control have been taken away from them (and everything they “need” is provided by a governing power) experience higher suicide rates – no sense of self-worth….We are the only species able to die of hunger to make a point. Conversely, if your reason for being has disappeared, there is no point in living.”
Daydreaming activates the deepest level of thought vs. being “on task.” Personal memories activate this region. Reading comprehension and problem-solving are activated when not distracted by the ‘real world.’ Learning how to access this inner network (and leave it when appropriate) is critical for depth of thought. We need to be able to ignore external stuff – need to be able to shift between the internal and the external. “
Answering a question about teens’ tendency toward “risky behavior,” she said: “Teens are much more sensitive to stimuli and the presence of peers. They are more likely to do risky behavior with peers around. They need to learn to act responsibly (through many experiences). Teens don’t have enough experience to quickly decide what is good/bad for me – so they think a lot about the issue before deciding.” (i.e., tendency to over-think all angles of an issue – frustrating to them & adults!
I wished that there could have been more actual strategies for empowering/enhancing teens and young adults’ growth of their inner self. I can remember how fascinated my Spanish III students were when they read Ortega y Gasset’s concept of seeking friends/mates with “la misma profundidad.” We spent two class periods because of their intense interest in the implications for their own life choices and I have heard them through the years harken back to that discussion. The hunger is there.
Bank Square Books has copies of her book: Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience. She was in town because today she is speaking to 60 heads of school in Mystic.
There will be more speakers in the series – next on Jan. 14th at The Williams School. Check their website for snowdate/topics.
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