Academic and Scholarly Events

  • 1/19 Building Meaning Builds Teens' Brains

    Building meaning builds teens’ brains: Adolescents’ transcendent thinking predicts young adult psychosocial outcomes via neural development

    Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, EdD
    Fahmy and Donna Attallah Chair in Humanistic Psychology
    Director, USC Center for Affective Neuroscience, Development, Learning and Education
    Professor of Education, Psychology & Neuroscience
    Brain & Creativity Institute, USC Rossier School of Education

    Thursday, January 19th 2023
    2:00 pm ET
    Oak Hall 408 (virtual) and livestream

    Register for Oak Hall 408 watch party or livestream

    A major achievement of adolescent development is the capacity to integrate abstract cognitive construals with affective experiences to construct meaningful, transcendent narratives about one’s self and the world—constructing identities and coming to feel strongly about complex social issues. Leveraging these capacities, adolescents can be among the most visionary and commited citizens, as the world has recently seen with such extraordinary youth as Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg, and Emma González. In this talk, I will discuss our longitudinal, neuropsychological studies of the processes underlying such capacities with Los Angeles-area adolescents and young adults from diverse backgrounds. Findings from qualitative interviews paired with neuroimaging reveal coordinated psychological, behavioral and neural processes by which youth transcend concrete, empathic reactions to also experience values-driven emotions reliant on abstract thought, such as moral inspiration, curiosity and compassion. They further reveal dispositions toward abstract construals in social contexts that predict subsequent brain development irrespective of IQ and socio-economic status, and in turn young adult relationships and wellbeing. Findings underscore the active role adolescents play in their own brain development through the meaning they make of the social world. In addition, especially as our intervention studies demonstrate that abstract construals increase over time in supportive developmental contexts and mediate increases in life purpose, the work has implications for redesigning secondary schools and out-of-school programming to promote youth thriving.


    Mary Helen Immordino-Yang is Fahmy Attallah Professor of Humanistic Psychology and Professor of Education, Psychology and Neuroscience at University of Southern California, and founding director of the USC Center for Affective Neuroscience, Development, Learning and Education ( She studies the neuropsychological development of emotion and self-awareness, and connections to social, cognitive and moral development. She uses interdisciplinary studies of narratives and feelings to uncover experience-dependent neural mechanisms contributing to identity, intrinsic motivation, deep learning, and abstract thought. Her work has a special focus on adolescents and teachers from low-SES communities, whom she also involves as junior scientists and collaborators (respectively) in her work. A former teacher, she has received numerous national and international awards for her research and impact on society, especially education.

    For more information, contact: Brain Imaging Research Center at