Saturday, August 08, 2015

The teenage brain

What we're learning about 

the teenage brain

But adolescents can do things that change the world — 
if we arm them with right tools.

Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook before he was even 20. 
Taylor Swift left home and moved to Nashville, 
Tennessee when she was 14 years old 
to begin a career as a country music star.

Meanwhile, 18-year-old Malala Yousafzai 
has done more to promote the rights of girls 
than most adults could dream of.

But armed with the wrong tools, 
young people can also cause destruction and terror. 
The Boston bombings, 
the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, 
and the mass-shooting of nine worshippers 
at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, 
were all carried out by teenagers.

For all that scientists know about the brain, 
it's these crucial adolescent years — 
between ages 12 and 24 — 
that could be some of our most important.

“When a child moves into adolescence, 
it’s amazing, but we now understand that the brain 
is remodeling,” says Dan Siegel, 
a neuropsychiatrist and author of "Brainstorm: 
The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain." 
“What that means is [the brain is] going to prune 
some of its circuits away like in a garden, 
but then also add new connections to the circuits 
that are going to remain.”

Siegel says that it’s a myth that adolescents 
are simply driven by immaturity, 
impulse, and raging hormones. 
Instead, he says that adults should be 
empowering adolescents to make their brains more integrated, 
something that would make their brains more resilient.

“In the middle of your brain, 
you have a very emotion-based region that’s getting 
all sorts of signals from the body 
and even the lower areas of the brain itself,” says Siegel. 
“We know when we look at brain scans of adolescents, 
that this emotional region is just more active 
than it is in childhood, or even for us as adults. 
There’s no question that emotions are strong in adolescents. 
But we need to teach adolescents 
how this region of the brain 
is functioning during this period of time.”

Siegel says that adults need to teach young people 
about their emotions so they can deal with them 
in different ways. 
In bestowing adolescents with the teachable skill 
of “emotional intelligence,” 
he says they will be better prepared for the present 
and future.

“‘Time in’ is a term I use that embodies of a bunch of 
practices that, research has shown, 
allows you to basically take your focus of attention 
and focus it inwardly,” he says. 
“A ‘time in’ practice may be sensing your breath, 
becoming aware of sensations in your body, 
what you’re thinking, or even reflecting on your memories.”

Siegel says that research has show that focusing 
one’s attention in mindful ways 
can actually stimulate circuits of the brain. 
When circuits in the brain are stimulated, 
they grow—something that Siegel can produce 
“massively important” 
changes in the brain—changes that can alter the course 
of an adolescent’s life.

For troubled teens like Boston Marathon Bomber 
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 
Siegel says that establishing connections 
can potentially fight feelings 
of disenfranchisement that can lead to violence.

“It’s possible that if we actually provided ways for 
adolescents to feel connected, 
or when they’re disconnected there could be support for them, 
for some of these examples, 
maybe not all of them, 
we can actually alter the course 
of these violent activities,” he says.

Additionally, Siegel says that 
understanding the adolescent brain comes down to evolution.

“Nature requires — not just for us humans, 
but for all mammals — for the child mammal 
or the child human to leave the nest and 
establish a home away from the biological parents. 
So there’s a natural drive for an adolescent 
to push away from adults,” he says. 
“We evolve to deal with the world as it is. 
In childhood, we’re soaking in knowledge like a sponge, 
and as adults we’ve kind of found our niche 
and what we’re doing. But the world is always changing.”

Because young people are going through changes, 
Siegel believes that adolescents 
are designed to challenge adults.

“That is biologically and evolutionarily important because 
we know that the major innovations in technology, 
in science, in music and art come from adolescent minds,” 
he says. “That’s because adolescents are 
literally biologically programmed to push 
against the status quo that adults have created 
and imagine a world that could be, 
and not just learn the world as it is. 
That’s why we need to see adolescents 
as the hope for the future.”

This story first aired as an interview 
on PRI's The Takeaway, 
a public radio program that invites you 
to be part of the conversation.