Tuesday, November 18, 2008

This is Your Brain, Young Person

Another From the Files.

I don't remember why I originally printed this one out -- The Teenage Brain -- Walrus Magazine. I am thinking JoVE might have linked to it or sent it to me?

The idea is that MRIs and other neurological research have shown what we always suspected just from having been a teenager -- that the adolescent brain is not quite like a child's brain OR quite like an adult's brain.

Recent research into childhood neurology seemed to emphasize the importance of early childhood in brain development. ... Rob Reiner, advocate of Universal Preschool, says “by the age of ten, your brain is cooked” and I have read other studies that say that over half your adult brain development has taken place by the time you are school age. As a consequence, the article points out, parents have made superhuman efforts to maximize their child's early cognitive and psychological development by Baby Einstein music in utero, Teach yourBaby to Read programs, scads of enrichment activities and playdates, and a bunch of similar things.

The article affirms that:

by the time a child reaches the age of six, the brain is 90 to 95 percent of its adult size. But massive changes continue to take place for at least another fifteen years. They involve not just the familiar “grey matter,” but a substance known as “white matter,” the nerve tissue through which brain cells communicate — literally the medium that delivers the messages. White matter develops continuously from birth onward, with a slight increase during puberty. In contrast, grey matter — the part of the brain responsible for processing information, or the “thinking” part — develops quickly during childhood and slows in adolescence, with the frontal and temporal lobes the last to mature.

And this is the crux: the frontal lobe, or more precisely the prefrontal cortex, is the home of the so-called “executive functions” : planning, organization, judgment, impulse control, and reasoning. The part that should be telling the sixteen-year-old not to dive off the thirty- foot cliff into unknown water. The seat of civilization.
So the MRI research shows that an early adolescent brain -- age 12 to 15 -- undergoes another flourishing of synaptic connections similar to early childhood's -- before a pruning and consolidating takes place in later years. This flowering and consolidation help explain why a young person can seem so mature in some ways and yet make drastic misjudgements. The Teen Brain -- "A Work in Progress" -- mentions the same phenomenon.

Time-lapse MRI images of human-brain development between ages five and 20 show the growth and then gradual loss of gray matter, which consists of cells that process information. (Red areas contain more gray matter, blue areas less.) Paradoxically, the thinning of gray matter that starts around puberty corresponds to increasing cognitive abilities. This probably reflects improved neural organization, as the brain pares redundant connections and benefits from increases in the white matter that helps brain cells communicate.
Cognitively, then, people are still in the development process past early childhood, into the adolescent years and perhaps beyond that. If you've worked with young people or been one, you've probably noticed this yourself. One thing of interest is that it's often during the "pruning" stages that a young person seems to show the most obvious cognitive leaps. When you are parenting, you often notice a "disorganized" time in a child's life and then a developmental surge somewhat after that. I am wondering whether the "disorganized" times are when the synapses are connecting and the quieter times of more obvious development are pruning times. Just a thought.

Now, for more on the history of the psychology of adolescence:

Here is an article called Perspectives of Adolescence that gives an overview of past historical thinking on adolescence. Apparently Stanley Hall, in the mid-19th century, first discussed adolescence as a unique stage in development. He took Goethe's early romantic novelette, The Sorrows of Young Werther, as a sort of model for his ideas about adolescence as a time of "Storm and Stress". This model was deeply influential, and was consolidated by Anna Freud's thinking about adolescent development. She worked clinically with disturbed teens and her theories were thus skewed towards pathology. It took the field quite a long time to recover fully from this, as I understand. In popular thinking, adolescence became a unique life stage, set apart drastically from childhood OR adulthood.

Recently, there have been attempts to rehabilitate the concept of the "teenager". In a book called The Good Teen, which I haven't read, Richard Lerner makes a case that the teenage years don't have to be a time of "Sturm und Drung". In this Smithsonian interview on "the good teen", Lerner says:

As early as the 1960s research began to show that only a small minority of the pathways through adolescence were characterized by storm and stress.
He goes on to talk about the "5 C's" of successful teenage living, which look much like the C's of successful adult living, in fact:

The 5 C's are competence—not just academic but social, vocational and health competence. Confidence. Then character, that it's fundamentally important to do what's right. Connection, or working collaboratively with parents, peers, siblings, teachers, coaches. Finally, caring, a sense of compassion or social justice.

In an article called the Myth of Adolescence, two teenagers called Alex and Brett Harris write about some past historical figures who did adult things at an early age. ... for example, George Washington who got a job as a surveyor at age 16 and by age 21 was a major land-owner:

These examples astound us in our day and age, but this is because we view life through an extra social category called ‘adolescence’, a category that would have been completely foreign to men and women just 100 years ago. Prior to the late 1800s there were only 3 categories of age: childhood, adulthood, and old age. It was only with the coming of the early labor movement with its progressive child labor laws, coupled with new compulsory schooling laws, that a new category, called adolescence, was invented. Coined by G. Stanley Hall, who is often considered the father of American psychology, ‘adolescence’ identified the artificial zone between childhood and adulthood when young people ceased to be children, but were no longer permitted by law to assume the normal responsibilities of adulthood, such as entering into a trade or finding gainful employment. Consequently, marriage and family had to be delayed as well, and so we invented ‘the teenager’, an unfortunate creature who had all the yearnings and capabilities of an adult, but none of the freedoms or responsibilities.
This perspective from teenagers brings up one of the main things that I noticed while weeding through these linked articles, and several others that I didn't link to.

It was that, many times even in otherwise worthwhile articles, and perhaps inevitably because of the very purpose of the research, the "teen" or "adolescent" is thought of as an object of research and study (and concern) rather than an active agent. Whereas, on the other hand, the agent of the study, the theorizer, is thought of somehow as an objective force, someone who studies and manages this thing called "adolescence". For example, Lerner, though he's positive in his ideas of what teens CAN do, will talk about "programs" for teens:

Through programs that embrace three characteristics: sustained relationships between adults and young people, teaching knowledge and skills to navigate the world and—this can be the most difficult—allowing kids to use those skills in valued community and family activities. Let your kids plan family vacations with you. Let them help set the menu for dinner. Or, if the parents give resources to charity, let young people help make that decision
I am not knocking his ideas for remedies, because I am finding out while writing this how difficult it is to treat a vast subject in a few words. I'm merely using this as a jump-off point for my own point, which is: While admirable in some ways, these remedies don't seem to address what seems to me the central point. Do you remember being a teenager? I do. Are you around teenagers? What do you think of them? To me, they are first and foremost people. Putting them in a class of their own, with special "programs" devoted to their expansion of potential, seems patronizing to me. While I don't know what Lerner's solutions would look like -- I admire JT Gatto's ideas about education, and it could be that these would be similar -- I do think there is always a possibility that good solutions, in the hands of second-rate practititioners who get control of "teens" as a "group", can end up just as band-aid fixes, and usually expensive ones.

When I was an adolescent, I was as smart as an adult, and smarter in several key ways. I have lost some of that audacious genius. Sure, I developmentally lacked judgment; probably the losing of one was a corollary to the gaining of the other. But I was smart enough to know when I was being patronized, and a severe, critical dislike of patronization was a primary trait. My brain was more fluid and more active than a middle-aged person's. I could think outside of the box better than the majority of adults I was in contact with, and I was more idealistic than most adults... partly because of my very lack of experience. Consequently, I preferred to interact with adults who had high expectations and warm support than adults who tried to "manage" me or "understand" me, perish the thought, especially if they hardly knew me, and MOST especially if they lumped me in with other adolescents who were very different people than I was. I valued honesty and excellence, which are two areas where adolescent and middle-aged people can generally find common ground.

I think there are two things that theorists about adolescence tend to miss (I am probably missing them too, in this discussion, but that doesn't detract from the point -- which is that things that are excluded are not less important because they are excluded).

  • One that I already mentioned -- that a young person is an active agent, not just a passive thing to be acted upon. This is always true, but extraordinarily so when the child gets past the receptive, "latent" period of mid-childhood. If adolescence is about anything, it is about potentiality in the process of being actualized. A kind of respect is needed here, hard to delineate, but you can probably retrieve an understanding of it from your own adolescent years, by remembering who was a force for good in your life.
  • Another is that adults are changing too. A few psychologists, like Erik Erikson, have addressed this, and as the research "grows up" with the baby boomers, there will probably be more and more neurological studies showing the plasticity vs fixedness of the brain through mid-life into old age. A middle-aged adult -- the age group that's most likely to work directly with teenagers because that's the age group of most parents and teachers of adolescents -- has certain good characteristics that are of advantage to young people. Judgment, skills, authority and perspective could be mentioned. But in this area, a kind of humility is needed to leaven the other qualities.

What I am trying to say is that a middle-aged person also has certain relative deficits which need to be recognized and allowed for. The ones I have noticed most markedly in people who work directly and "consciously" with teens AS teens is a kind of fixedness and complacency which takes three basic forms nowadays:
  • The old-fashioned form -- "I know what's best for you, young man. Snap to it. And cut that hair!"
  • The progressive form -- "It's all about the young people.... I'm just like you, man, only you're a bit cooler.... I can learn from you, let's chill together!"
  • The "helper" form -- "Let's make programs. Let's let/force the young people to have "ownership". Let's put them in little peer groups so they can have their peer experiences, but also control them pretty darn carefully so they don't actually do anything that we can't predict."
I'm not saying that ANY of these is all bad, I'm just saying that they all miss the point in some way, and to me it seems like basically the same way. They all isolate the young person, set him apart in some way, "inadequatize" him (or her) and don't allow for the particular virtues of the unique ages and the ways they can be of actual, individual help to each other.

I am speculating here, but I think perhaps the reason that athletic coaching is relatively often a successful middle-age/youth relationship is because the coach tends to have a reality check, an ongoing demonstration of youth potential as well as where the youth needs intervention. He will make immediately noticeable mistakes if he is too authoritarian OR too buddy-buddy or too micro-managing. I am not saying that all coaches avoid these dangers, just that the territory they are working in tend to make these excesses more immediately obvious. Going back to what the Harrises said, I think probably the reason that young people were accepted as adults in earlier times were two-fold:

  • People had a shorter life-span and thus had to make their mark faster.
  • The endeavours that were important to earlier days of civilization were those where a youthful type of brain and body -- flexible and dynamic -- were quite valuable.
These things are still true in the athletic world and to some extent in new industries like computer tech world (though not so much nowadays as it was in the days my husband was coming of age, when Wozniak and Jobs could make a PC in their garage and subvert the main-frame industry). They don't tend to be as true in some of the areas where teens are found most collectively. Schools and church youth groups seem to be "top down" in several key respects, which makes it a challenge for the young people to make a difference without collecting in "niches" defined by weird clothes, quirky fascinations, secret subversion or other things that are signs of a cultural black-market ecology. ... which in turn is a sign of over-regimentation and under-involvement. It is a hopeful sign that young people like the Harrises are trying to reclaim the territory, and I do think this is what is going to end up being needed.

Obviously I've only skimmed the surface on this subject, and probably, as I said, shown some relative deficits of my own. That's probably somewhat in the nature of the subject.

Books that might be of interest (I've only read the Hard Things book, but I've requested a couple from the library and will try to write out a few notes when I read them):


Stephanie said...

"an early adolescent brain -- age 12 to 15 -- undergoes another flourishing of synaptic connections similar to early childhood's"

AaaaHA!!! Scientific "proof" for what we've said around here for years. Adolescence is a repeat toddlerhood. Only, we posited that the person's horizons are expanding so quickly in all directions that it's very scary and disconcerting for the person who suddenly doesn't know where anything is in the world.

When my kids got to the second round of that stuff, I actually did say out loud to each of them in turn, "When you felt like this when you were little, there wasn't much you could do about it. And you couldn't really do any real damage to other people, either. But it's different now. You can learn a few things about trust and self-regulation and control and that sort of thing ... and if you're not careful you really can hurt other people. Your aim is a lot better, and you are stronger now. So you have to be careful. Now you're responsible for what you do with all that craziness and fear."

I can testify that if you watch for just the right moment to say that, and you do NOT repeat yourself, but just expect the adolescent to remember, it sticks. I've heard echoes of it in my young adults, and I know they heard me back then.

Laura A said...

Thanks, Willa. I'm printing this one off to read during this afternoon's violin lesson. I read *The Case Against Adolescence* earlier this year and really thought it was interesting. And that reminds me that I've been meaning to read *Do Hard Things* as well.

Anonymous said...

It was me that sent you that article. I can't remember what we'd been talking about. I recall something about needing more sleep in that article, too, and musing on a more sensible set of hours for high-school and the current overload of activities.

I think you might be onto something with the attempts to define young people into a box labeled "adolescent" and the treat them as a group. Adolescence is an historical and cultural anomaly, very recent in our own culture and non-existent in others.

And in the past we had ways to allow young people to do some adult things (like contribute economically), while usually delaying full adulthood due to the lack of judgement. Thus long apprenticeships. And the age of majority being 21 (traditionally in England you would get a key to the house at age 21). And so on.

The point about marrying (in one of your quotes) seems off. Marriage was traditionally later because it was dependent on being able to support a wife and family. Certainly in the UK current age at first marriage has returned to levels common over 100 years previously and the period following WWII had the lowest ever average age at first marriage (and highest number of marriages).

Laura A said...

Well now I've read your whole post, and most of the accompanying articles, and it was all very interesting. I always wish I could give my adolescent some very real work to do, but we do live in a modern world, and so I guess orchestra, cooking, and venturing out into the city will have to suffice for now. I certainly admire my 14yo's sheer brain power, and I'm enjoying watching her find her own adult-level interests.

Your three forms of interacting with teens as teens were particularly interesting to me. My own youth group probably trafficked in that "progressive" category a lot, and it still gives me an icky feeling. What can a teen think but, "Yikes! They think we're cool? Wow, I guess I better not disappoint them!" If the teen wants a good reason to resist the culture of cooler than thou, it feels like a betrayal to have adults pandering to you like this.

The "helper" form of working with teens made me think. Sometimes I see this "helping" even among homeschoolers. I checked myself, in fact, and thought, "Do I do this?"

And I love that phrase "cultural black-market ecology."

One question: What did you think of Do Hard Things? I'm intrigued, but I haven't read it. I get a whiff of something from the website that might be guilt or legalism, but might not, and I haven't read enough to be able to tell. I went through a distinctive stage like that at about seventeen, during which I was always thinking I had to do something drastic, and to have fed it would probably not have been a good idea. But if it simply inspires to excellence and wonder, that's another matter altogether and I should give it to my daughter.

The Case Against Adolescence offers some good things, but his solutions seemed unworkable to me.

Sorry so long! I thought about writing my own post, but this all seemed very specific to *your* post, so I didn't.