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From Immature to “Under Construction”
By Natasha Broman, TIE Staff Writer 06-Aug-14
Last December, Dan Siegel, a psychiatry professor at the UCLA School of Medicine, launched his new book Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, written for both teenage and adult readers. While his own children were going through adolescence Dr. Siegel realized he could not find any literature for teenagers about the changes their brains are undergoing between the ages of 12 and 24. In his own words, “I was shocked to find the disparity between what science was saying and what popular views of adolescence are.” Brainstorm sets out to present the scientific understanding of the adolescent’s changing brain in a concise and accessible way, and in doing so, to challenge common misconceptions about teenagers. Clearly this is an area that both teenagers and adults want increased understanding of, as evidenced by the book’s ranking as the second highest-selling book in Amazon’s “parenting of teenagers” subcategory weeks before its publication date. At the center of the book is the message that the brain must undergo huge changes to take it from the dependency of childhood to the responsibility of adulthood. To prepare the adolescent for becoming an adult, certain changes in the brain must work to encourage the teen to want to leave the comfort of home, seek relationships with peers, and expand their thinking beyond what they have been taught by family. The two main evolutionary goals of this development are to diversify the gene pool of the next generation, and to move the human race on in terms of new ideas and creativity. This process of change involves a dramatic pruning of those neurons in the brain that are no longer needed, and Dr. Siegel likens this to the remodeling of a house by asking us whether we would describe a house that is mid-renovation as being “immature.” Rather than denigrate teenagers’ behavior, he says, we should meet it with empathy and understand that as with a house during a remodel, there will be some areas that temporarily do not work as well as usual. Dr. Siegel’s big focus however, is on the need for a change in the cultural conversation about adolescents, shifting away from negative and harmful myths and moving towards a world where we understand teenagers’ needs, empathize with their feelings, and harness the creative power of the adolescent brain. Dr. Siegel, being a particular fan of acronyms, uses the word ESSENCE to describe the four main aspects of the teenage brain. These are emotional spark, social engagement, novelty and creative exploration. During adolescence, the mammalian limbic region of the brain, which primarily functions as its emotional center, has an unusually powerful effect on the cortex (the higher part of the brain). Evolutionarily speaking, this change helps the adolescent get ready for living independently in the outside world by putting them on higher alert for risk. The downside is that emotions are more likely to flood the higher cortex, leading to increased moodiness and sensitivity. Dr. Siegel talks about the upside as being an emotional spark, a zest and passion for life that helps to drive adolescents to increased social engagement with peers. When we lived on the savannah as early humans, an adolescent would only survive as part of an adolescent group. Hence the vital importance for so many teenagers to “fit in” with a peer group. As Dr. Siegel says this can often feel like life and death for teenagers, and in fact it once was. This brain-based push away from parents and towards friends can lead to negative factors such as peer pressure, and Dr. Siegel highlights the importance of further thinking about teenagers’ access to quality relationships with non-parental adults who can offer support and guidance without compromising the natural need to move away from caregivers. On the upside, teenagers are ideally placed for collaboration with others, and experience heightened pleasure from close friendship and connection. The third and fourth main areas of development in the adolescent brain both involve exploration of the push to encourage the individual to leave the family home and further the human race through new ideas. Teenagers’ brains have a lower baseline of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that rewards us with pleasurable feelings when we engage with compelling and rewarding activities. By lowering the dopamine level, teenagers are encouraged to leave the familiar and seek the unfamiliar; in other words, to leave home. Another change is that when dopamine is released in the adolescent brain, the release is higher than in a non-adolescent brain, thus rewarding new experiences with a bigger “hit” of pleasure. These changes mean that while being more prone to feelings of boredom, adolescents are also driven to seek novelty and do new things. While the downside is risk-seeking behavior, something we hear so much about with regard to teenagers, the upside is their drive to leave home and start practicing independence. Part of this novelty-seeking involves creative exploration and an increased capacity for thinking outside of the box. This is a major area of importance for Dr. Siegel, who believes that to harness the immense creativity and capacity for collaboration that adolescents have, school curricula must to be designed around these heightened strengths. He criticizes the often competitive nature of curricula, and instead advocates for a collaborative grading system. He also suggests that we should be finding more opportunities within a curriculum to enable adolescents to focus on solving real-world problems, not only for their own benefit but for the benefit of mankind as a whole. Dan Siegel passionately believes that we must optimize teenagers’ capacity to be the courageous and creative people that their brains have designed them to be. The first step towards this must be an increase in adults’ understanding, compassion, and patience regarding adolescents, and indeed the dramatic and quite spectacular neurological transformation they are undergoing. Brainstorm is a New York Times best-seller and current nominee for a Books for a Better Life award.
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