In his recently published book “Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain”, Dr. Daniel Siegel, MD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and a graduate of Harvard Medical School, provides professionals working with teens, but specially parents and teens, a wonderful and user friendly roadmap into the adolescent brain. Even though deceivingly simple, it is based in cutting edge research in the field of interpersonal neurobiology and neuroplasticity that helps us better understand the changes in the adolescent brain from age 12 until 24. Dr. Siegel starts by deflating some myths that obscure this understanding. The first one is that adolescents act the way they do because of raging hormonal changes in their body. Although hormones do increase, this is not the main fuel in the behavioral changes, but actually what is behind them is the changes in the development of the brain which is undergoing a big process of “remodeling”. During this time of development the brain is growing new structures and interconnections of these structures as well as “pruning” some that are no longer useful. A second myth that he would like gone is that this is just a period of immaturity that the youngster will “outgrow”. This thinking ignores the fact that this is a very important developmental period that will set up core character traits that can lead into a very fulfilling and purposeful life as an adult. So, this is a period of “work” for the adolescent mind, thus the emotional intensity, social engagement and creativity characteristic of the adolescent will facilitate the development of positive traits in the future. Finally, the third myth that he sets out to replace is that the adolescent’s main job is to move from dependence on adults to total independence from them, which is not really the right direction, according to Dr. Siegel. Actually, the ultimate goal is to move towards interdependence of others which is a process of learning about giving and receiving care from others. This is a process that in adolescence we begin to master through the centrality of the relationships to the peers in the teen life.
For both parents and professionals the big question about adolescents is why do they seem to change, many times from being very obedient children into youngsters that seem to be prone to risk taking behaviors even when they are aware and educated about the dangers of such things as drugs/alcohol consumption, driving at high speed, unprotected sex, etc. Dr. Siegel’s answer directs us to look at the evolutionary task of the adolescence period which is for the individual to leave the parental home and go explore the world and procreate, but in order to do such a task and overtake the risks involved in leaving the security and protection of the childhood home, the adolescent has to be compelled to do it and so we are genetically programed for it, our species and all species support that by the genetically driven attraction to try new ways: this is the novelty seeking attraction of this period of development. Secondly, this inclination is supported by changes observable in the brain that increase this drive through changes in the dopamine system of the brain. There is a lower baseline of the dopamine levels with higher release levels. These changes produce a restless feeling in the adolescent that is usually identified as boredom and a need to stimulate the release of dopamine through novelty, so you are compelled to try something new. The upside then is it motivates the behavior of exploration of the world, but the downside is an increase in risky behaviors such as explorations of drugs, or overeating sugary foods, or spending excessive time on videogames among others. Because of the imbalance in the dopamine system, the brain is more vulnerable to addiction at this point of development, if other conditions also support the development of long lasting addictive disorders.
For teaching purposes, Dr. Siegel talks about three major areas of the brain and he uses the image of a hand closed in a fist to describe it more easily. In the hand model of the brain we first put our thumb on the palm of the hand and then cross the fingers over the thumb, the area of the palm corresponds to the brain stem, the deepest part of your brain where the automatic responses towards danger originate: the fight, flight or freeze/faint responses that we share with many species. The thumb corresponds in this image to the limbic system of the brain, whose major function is to generate emotions, but it is also connected to motivation. It is changes in this area that drive the push away from the parental figures, so this is not a sign of immaturity but rather it is a form of transformation that is hardwired in the adolescent brain for adaptive purposes. Appraisal is another function of the limbic area, where stimuli coming from outside or inside of the body are evaluated as good or bad, important or not, etc. Memory is regulated in here as well as responses to stress and the attachment response. Attachment is a function of the relationship with important figures in our lives, where a secure attachment is defined by feeling seen, safe, soothed and secure. This attachment starts to change in adolescence facilitated by changes in the limbic system: instead of turning to the parents for security, the adolescents begin to turn to their peers. Dr. Siegel calls this social engagement. This is essential for the development of the adolescent because as you leave your nest you need the support of your social group to survive, just like other species do in the wild. So, this is an evolutionary safety net created by the limbic area of the brain which feeds a need to belong. The downside of this need is the danger of caving into peer pressure.
Finally, the fingers represent the cortex, the area that allows thinking, perception, remembering, planning and decision making. The prefrontal cortex region is where most of the physiological and anatomical changes happen in the adolescent brain and he calls this part the master control region or “master integrative hub”. Energy and information from the cortex, limbic area, brain stem, body and our social world all are coordinated and balanced by this area. This essential integrative role is central in understanding the developing brain of the adolescent. In essence the brain develops towards more integration so that more specialized areas are coordinated with each other and function more effectively. The differentiation of the areas is realized through pruning of neurons and neuronal connections that are no longer useful and then linking them through a process called myelination. All of this “remodeling” happening in the brain takes place successfully in the presence of relatively calm circumstances, but becomes a taxing factor when stressful factors are present in the life of the adolescent. That is when subcortical or lower areas of the brain take over and that is when the teen “flips its lid” and the prefrontal cortex is “temporarily out of service” and is not available to calm the emotions being fired by the “lower brain”: called the amygdala. Unfortunately, the amygdala is more readily activated in the adolescent brain, creating these intense emotional states, without the benefit of the higher cortex sifting information, being able to reason and reflect in order to moderate his/her reactions, which is more frequently possible in the adult brain. The positive side of these intense emotions, which he calls the emotional spark, is that it creates meaning and vitality, not only during adolescence, but throughout our lives.
Through all this the cortex is busy creating new functions such as conceptual thinking and thinking of things in new combinations. Facilitating what he calls: creative exploration. However, as the limbic area is appraising the value of an activity, a condition typical of this maturing brain is a mode of thinking called hyper rational thinking characterized by minimizing the risks and over valuing the pros or positive outcomes. The result of this is that decisions are not made correctly even when the adolescent is informed about the dangers of a situation. This is for Dr. Siegel the main reason for the failure of educational programs that deliver only information on the dangers of certain activities hoping that this will serve as a deterrent. As a more effective deterrent he advocates going further and teaching self-awareness and intuitive thinking, in which the young person learns to listen to his heart and gut feelings telling him or her “I want to drive fast but something in my gut is telling me No this is wrong, this is dangerous and images of dead people or hurt people are coming to me and I am getting a bad feeling”. In this manner, he says, the answer comes from an internal compass rather than an adult mandate. His book is full of exercises teaching self-awareness to the adolescent (and the parent) through mindfulness meditation. This is the counterpart to the hyper rational thinking. The other way to help support novelty seeking behaviors in the right direction is according to Dr. Siegel to create the activities that feed their interests and passions and that are creative outlets but do not involve risk taking.
The wonderful news is that the brain continues to grow and change all throughout our lives according to research and is therefore always able to change itself, a totally new concept called neuroplasticity. Through teaching mindfulness meditation practices in very easy and gradual steps he gives the reader tools to support the creation of a better integrated brain, where behavior includes self-awareness, empathy, emotional balance and flexibility. These abilities will in turn help the adolescent (and the parent) to increase their emotional balance and thus decrease automatic negative reactions (reactivity) in our interactions with each other and when facing the stresses that life brings.