Mind Matters — The Brainstorm of Adolescence

On my walk at Longwood today I hear a grandmother give notice to a toddler as he tries to pick up crusty snow to throw at people. “Careful, buddy, that’s ice.” Immediately, I flashback to the story of the twelve year-old fooling around on an overpass several years ago. He hurled a large chunk of ice at a car on the road below him. The tragic result was that the driver, a mother, was killed. Did that boy know what the consequences of his action would be? Emphatically no, he did not.

And Daniel Siegel, neuro-psychiatrist, would agree. Synchronistically, I came to Longwood to write but the toddler I witnessed on my walk jogged my memory of the boy. We can be very harsh and judgmental of youth—especially boys, so it would certainly help us to understand their developing (note they are not developed) brains.

Daniel Siegel brings us another informative book on the matter: Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain. Siegel defines adolescence as being between the ages of twelve and twenty-four.

The developing brain of the teen is at a critical juncture, and a critical time implies crisis. Yet again I consider how the Chinese character for crisis is also the symbol for opportunity. Crossroads are always a time of choice—do we take the metaphorical high or low road? So it is with the teenage brain: depending on circumstances and the environment, the developing brain can respond positively or negatively.

Siegel notes that teen brain changes are notable in four ways: novelty seeking, social engagement, increased emotional intensity, and creative exploration. These four qualities can lead to both positive and negative behaviors.

Novelty seeking arises from “an increased drive for rewards in the circuits of the adolescent brain.” The teenager searches for what is new and different. The downside, says Siegel, is thrill and sensation seeking; daring without considering the risks and consequences. Is there an upside? Yes, says Siegel, when teens can have an openness to change and a sense of adventure.

Social engagement also has its polarities. If teens are disconnected from adults and only connect with other adolescents, there is a danger of “increased risk behavior.” Knowledgeable and reasoned adult interaction can mitigate the effects of peer pressure on risk taking behavior. On the other hand, the drive for social engagement is, in the long run, necessary for health and well-being throughout life.

The third quality of the changing teenage brain is increased emotional intensity. While such intensity may be marked by impulsivity and reactivity, when regulated, emotional intensity engenders energy and enthusiasm.

Siegel names “creative exploration with an expanded sense of consciousness” as the fourth quality to develop in the adolescent brain. Conceptual and abstract thinking move the teenager from the concrete, black and white world of childhood. Do you remember, as a teen, questioning the meaning of life? I do. The existentialists were my imaginary buddies in those days. Trouble is, according to Siegel, “searching for the meaning of life during the teen years can lead to a crisis of identity, vulnerability to peer pressure and a lack of direction … .” However, the upside is that such a searching brain, when nurtured, can mature into an open, inquiring, creative, and critical thinking mind.

Siegel reflects on how the “tragic school shootings and public explosions we bear witness to have often been carried out by males in their adolescence. There is an increasing disconnect in today’s world and we need to do something to help teens so that such destructive behavior can be understood and less likely to happen.”

By giving specific guidelines on how adults can connect to and model for the teens in their midst, Siegel rallies to avert the destructive actions of youth.