Learning the formula behind your emotions

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Alysia Burbidge stretches to point out a specific part of the brain to other students during the Neuroscience Summer Camp at USC. Burbidge and other students helped one another locate parts of the brain and discuss what functions they serve. MATT MASIN, STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Natalia Garzon wants her triangle to convey contempt for its circle brother, and by assigning the computer-generated shape a series of jerky movements and wordless intonations, she’s slowly teaching it how.

During the past three weeks, the Redondo Union High senior has learned that people are wired to look for motivations and feelings. So while creating a video involving triangles and circles, she hopes her newfound knowledge will help her trick the viewer into humanizing the geometric shapes.

Garzon is one of 20 Los Angeles high school students in the first and only USC Neuroscience Camp taking a crash course in the science behind human emotion. And if there’s one lesson the teens will learn during the course, it’s that feelings are learned – and learning how to learn and unlearn them can be the difference between success and failure.

That theory is the basis for USC psychology professor Mary Helen Immordino-Yang’s five-year research project studying the brain development and social maturation of 44 kids from low-income, often violent neighborhoods as they enroll in junior high and high school. Immordino-Yang received a $600,000 National Science Foundation grant for her research and launched the three-week neuroscience camp as a mandatory educational component of the program.

“Kids’ cultural background and family life may help them to become more resilient to community violence, be more academically resilient, overcome failures, pursue a passion through to adulthood and really accomplish something meaningful with their lives,” Immordino-Yang said. “So we’re trying to study the psychological traits that lead to that resilience and to understand how we can design schools to cultivate those in educational environments.”

Though the 20 kids who attended Immordino-Yang’s camp are not the same ones from her study, many of them also come from low-income areas. The teens are taught skills they’ll need to succeed while learning about the brain and physiological activity driving motivations.

To do that, Immordino-Yang hooked her kids up to electrocardiogram machines; monitored one another’s heartbeats under emotional, physical and mental provocations; and looked at how their feelings stemmed from the way they interpreted embodied emotions.

She allowed them to watch real-time neural imaging on an MRI machine to see how the brain lit up in response to physical and emotional stimuli. She told them thrilling and sad stories while asking them to take note of how their bodies responded to the emotional tales.

Garzon said the exercises were frustrating at times, but now she understands that science is as much about dedication as details.

“Before this class, my idea of a scientist was a person working in a lab,” Garzon said. “But this changed that. It’s so much more complex and interesting.”

More than anything else, Immordino-Yang said she hoped the class would expose the teens to academic debate and the notion that it’s OK to approach a problem from a number of angles, collaborate with others and talk about it.

What success looks like was another topic of discussion. Yet that image conflicts with an identity the teen culture says they should have. Immordino-Yang said many teens feel a disconnect between their identities and the traits they know they need to be successful.

“We had a conversation about that ... and the whole room went, ‘That’s how I feel! I didn’t know anybody else in the world felt like you’re not supposed to be a kid who looks like me, who is super studious and sitting in the front row and doing homework,’” she said.

Monday’s exercise – attempting to convey emotions through faceless shapes and wordless sounds – is the course’s capstone project. On Tuesday, the students were to show their videos to the class and try to guess what emotions the triangles and circles were trying to convey. After that, Immordino-Yang planned to sit down with each and ask them how they felt about the course.

She said when she does, she hopes the students’ feelings – even if they’re newly learned – are those of pride and inspiration.

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