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Rooted in Relationships: Episode 1.2 Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang


Rooted in Relationships: Episode 1.2 Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang

Resource Audience

Adults Youth Program Leaders Teachers School / Youth Program Staff School / Youth Organization Leaders District Leaders

Resource Type


Read Time

31-60 Minutes

Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang - Resilience through relationships

In this episode, we will be talking to Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang who is an expert on the impact and implications of social and emotional development on learning. We will be diving into the neuroscience of relationships, how deep learning is fostered and the transformative impact when young people have a sense of meaning beyond themselves.

Welcome to the Rooted In Relationships podcast! Our guest for today’s episode is Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Professor of Education, Psychology and Neuroscience at USC. She is also Director at USC’s Center for Affective Neuroscience Development Learning and Education. Dr. Immordino-Yang is an expert of the social and emotional development of young people across cultures. Today, we’ll be diving into the importance of relationships, how deep learning is fostered and what it means when young people have a sense of meaning beyond themselves.

To begin, Dr. Immordino-Yang shares her own story, giving context to how she ended up at USC with an interest in neuroscience and education. While she was a good person in her adolescence, Mary Helen wasn’t exactly the best student. She felt that school was not a good place for her wellbeing and interfered with all of the other things she wanted to do growing up on her family's farm. She was always interested in the questions “Who am I? How do I experience the world in comparison to others? What are cultural traditions?”

Dr. Immordino-Yang believes that what young people really need is diverse perspectives from trusting, loving adults who care about them and allow them to try new things to discover who they are. She herself was fortunate to have several different people in her life who filled this role at a young age. Unfortunately, many kids don’t have access to these resources and privileges. This is why Mary Helen does the work she does now - to help schools, families and organizations think differently about what adolescents need to thrive.

When she got to USC, Dr. Immordino-Yang shared her interest in how our emotions and values trigger social interactions with her colleague. What really moves humans, she found, is the stories of other humans. She began compiling documentaries using archived footage which told the stories of people over the world. From there, she conducted an experiment in which viewers of the films could respond about how the stories made them feel. As the study has progressed, it has revealed that the emotions garnered by viewers were heavily impacted by their preexisting values, beliefs and experiences. The fundamental insight shaping Dr. Immordino-Yang’s work now is in regards to how these networks play into the real, meaningful, emotionally engaged narratives which young people build around themselves and the world around them.

Then, the conversation shifts to discussing the traumatic period of social unrest and isolations young people are currently experiencing. Dr. Immordino-Yang offers advice for teachers and practitioners for engaging young people after this last year. The ability to experience understanding to engage with the here and now is the essence of a meaningful educational experience. Whatever you’re having emotion about is what you’re thinking about. Thus, emotion is the starting palace and the driver for learning. The art of teaching is that you can’t force someone to learn something, rather you must set up opportunities in which someone can think collaboratively around a topic and learn it for themselves. People are generally not motivated when they feel someone is trying to push them to do something. Instead, they have to cater the experience to their own desires.

Dr. Immordino-Yang partnered with the organization Sages & Seekers with funding from the John Templeton Foundation to study the efforts to connect elders and teenagers from their own community through relationship building activities. Alongside her colleagues, they designed a study which determined these powerful relationships were deeply impacting the both of the participants. While the elders' narratives usually involve their accomplishments and giving back to the world, young people tend to focus on their hopefulness and curiosity for the future.

The ability to construct a higher level of meaning ultimately helps young people make sense out of things, build a sense of self and connect what they’re doing here and now to a bigger reason that allows them to be more resilient and motivated. A value-based understanding of circumstances becomes a guiding light throughout one's life.


0:45 - Introduction of today’s episode and guest, Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang.

2:14 - Dr. Immordino-Yang shares about her educational background.

6:22 - What do young people really need to uncover their spark?

13:01 - How storytelling affects people on an emotional level.

18:24 - The initial key findings on Mary Helen’s study.

22:34 - What creates meaning in the minds of young people?

26:56 - Advice for people welcoming young people back after the recent traumatic period.

30:07 - What role does emotion play in learning?

36:10 - Mary Helen's involvement with the Sages & Seekers program.

43:20 - Constructing a higher level of meaning in one’s life.

45:31 - Mary Helen shares a core piece of advice for those working with young people.

Follow Benjamin Houltberg.

Learn more about Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang.

Learn more about Sages & Seekers.

Visit the Rooted In Relationships website.