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Book Review: 'Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain'

Published on: December 30, 2013


Editor's Note: Dr. Dan Siegel will appear at Seattle's Town Hall on Monday, December 9 at 7:00 p.m. Click here for tickets and other information.

When your teen sneaks out to a party with a boy, instead of watching a movie at a girlfriend's house like she told you she'd be doing, would it help you to know that the power of the adolescent mind has the spark of emotion, social drive and push toward novelty that may save life on our planet?

In his new book Brainstorm: The Power and the Purpose of the Teenage Brain, Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. turns the common negative perception of adolescence on its head.

Instead, he asks you to consider that during adolescence the brain is undergoing a massive and necessary integration of functions that will have long-lasting impact; that solidarity with peers is evolutionary, giving the group the strength to deal with outside threats (read: predators); that shared experiences will enable their generation to be leaders and shape the future and that adolescents are at the peak of their creative prowess and courageousness.

Furthermore, how we navigate the adolescent years has a direct impact on how we'll live the rest of our lives.

Siegel, a professor of clinical psychiatry at UCLA, co-director of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center and executive director of the Mindsight Institute, is also author of the book Mindsight and co-author of Parenting from the Inside Out and The Whole-Brain Child.

He's a leader in promoting strategies to foster emotional intelligence in children and adults, and coiner of the term "mindsight," which describes the human capacity to perceive the mind of the self and of others.

In Brainstorm, Siegel turns his attention to adolescents.

What were they thinking?

First and foremost, Siegel seeks to dispel the myth that the upheavals of adolescence are due to raging hormones and that the best strategy for adults and kids is to just get through it.

Instead, he makes the compelling case that adolescents don't need to simply survive this tumultous period; they can thrive because of it.

Divided into four parts, with "mindsight" tools interwoven at the end of each chapter, Brainstorm explores the essence of modern-day adolescence, demystifies the inner workings and rewiring of the adolescent brain, describes how relationships shape one's sense of identity and offers tips for navigating the changes and challenges of adolescence.

If, like me,  you live with tweens or teens, you'll be familiar with the four cardinal qualities of the adolescent mind: Novelty seeking, social engagement, increased emotional intensity and creative exploration. There are upsides and downsides to these, acknowledges Siegel. As any parent can tell you, there will be curve balls to field  (ask me about the 48 texts to Antarctica).

Adolescents are three times more likely than adults or children to suffer serious injury or death.

Risks, and the rewards adolescents associate with taking risks, come from innate changes in brain development during this phase of life. The challenge is to support exploration while minimizing the chances of harm.

This is your brain during adolescence

The book has a strong science component, but Siegel does a good job of making neuroscience understandable to those of us who are past our cognitive and creative peak.

Two major changes in brain structure occur during adolescence: The "pruning" of neurons (the brain's basic cells) and their connections (synapses), so that excess synapses are discarded, leaving behind the neural circuits the individual needs most. It's easier to learn a foreign language as a child because the brain is wired to do so. If a circuit is untapped, it will be pruned away.

The second adolescent brain transformation is the laying down of the myelin sheath, which enables linked activity among the remaining neurons.

As these transformations occur, ongoing integration of brain functions continue, including the growth of fibers of cognitive control that ultimately decreases impulsiveness and allows adolescents to think abstractly and see "the big picture," a skill Siegel calls "gist thinking."

In the meantime, the lower brain areas below the cortex are more active and are responsible for heightened and sudden emotions.

By understanding what's going on under a kid's hood, a savvy adult seeking to motivate teens will see the value in aiming for something, rather than inhibiting something. Siegel cites the example of a teen anti-smoking campaign, which proved successful when the focus shifted away from saying no to cigarettes and towards being strong in the face of advertising campaigns aimed to entice smokers.

Generation gap

Sometimes adult-adolescent conflict results because adults have lost touch with the qualities of novelty, creativity, social connection and emotional intensity, suggests Siegel. We may be overly serious, we may feel like we are in a rut and haven't fulfilled our life's purpose and our social life may be stagnant.

Adults desire things to stay the same; adolescents are driven to create a new world.

But adults can learn from teens, says Siegel.

Exuberance, creativity and novelty are good places to start.

Blocking the natural flow of adolescence causes household tension and disrespect. The goal should be to develop a collaborative interdependent means of relating, with adults lending support, while supporting separation.

Siegel and other adolescent brain researchers suggest that the only thing more dangerous than taking risks in adolescence is not taking them.

When conflict arises, as it inevitably will, take the opportunity to reflect on and repair the rupture in the relationship.

The take-away

Brainstorm is not a book for how to deal with a crisis in the heat of the moment, but rather a fascinating way of understanding human brain development, insight into ourselves and others and the impact of neuroscience on relationships.

Adults can use this understanding to interact with adolescents in a way that makes sense to them.

Siegel closes the book with seven simple daily activities that are scientifically proven to promote health and continued integrative brain growth. Dubbed, the "healthy mind platter," these are: Sleep time, physical time, focus time, connecting time, playtime, downtime and time-in (inner reflection).

"You know," I said the other day to my tween, who carries her iPhone around like an IV, "brain science shows that it's important to spend some time every day unplugged and focusing on inner reflection. If you don't, some important circuits in your brain won't be activated and you will lose them."

She's not a full-on gist thinker yet, but I thought I spied a glimmer of understanding in her eye.

Alison Krupnick is ParentMap's education editor and the author of the book Ruminations from the Minivan, Musings from a World Grown Large, Then Small and the blog Slice of Mid-Life.

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