When you see different types of jack-o’-lanterns, you don’t see the candles that make the pumpkins glow, but you imagine that the candles are inside.
This candle is a symbol of people’s emotions, according to cognitive neuroscientist and educational psychologist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, and the light shining out of the body and the facial expressions are indirect indicators for what people feel inside.
In hopes of defining how consciousness works, Immordino-Yang, the keynote speaker for the annual Leonetti/O’Connell honors research mentor dinner Feb. 3, conducted research on emotion, social interaction, and learning in neurobiology.
Science instructor and director of the honors research program Arleen Forsheit chose Immordino-Yang as the guest speaker because of her “truly interdisciplinary work,” Forsheit said.
Immordino-Yang focused on researching the brain because it creates a sense of “the self” and the feeling of consciousness. She found that the brain stem is where you feel the strong emotion of other people and that the admiration of someone’s virtue is felt viscerally in the gut.
She discovered this fact by studying admiration and compassion based on four conditions: compassion for social/psychological pain, compassion for physical pain, admiration for virtue, and admiration for skill.
Admiration is a rewarding emotion in a positive, warm sense, while compassion is a pain-based emotion. However, both are “pro-social emotions” that are beneficial to society, Immordino-Yang said.
“Compassion for physical pain is where you feel bad for the physical injury that’s happening to somebody, and you share their direct bodily pain as compared to their mental pain. In admiration for skill you admire not the kind of person or the mind, but what the person is able to do,” Immordino-Yang said.
Immordino-Yang said that she was interested in testing how the body and the brain coordinated and talked to each other during the feeling of complex emotion states.
During her experiment, Immordino-Yang evoked these four different emotions by telling true stories to her subjects, because humans cannot help but compare themselves to other people, she said.
“Feeling emotions about other people’s situations involves the neural mechanism for feeling and regulating your own body and for constructing your own sense of ‘self,” she said during her presentation. “Admiration for virtue engaged in brain areas is related to sensing and regulating the ‘self’ and the body.”
Immordino-Yang found that the middle region of the brain is so heavily interconnected with the state of psychological self, and this place is activated when one admires another person.
“As humans, “survival” becomes a complex social and cultural construct, so the brain co-opts for the most social and psychological emotions,” Immordino-Yang said.
Knowing that the brain is closely interlinked with the body, Immordino-Yang hopes to apply this knowledge to the education system by informing teachers that “emotions are not add-ons that interfere with cognition” and that “they are a foundational element of why thinking and learning happen.