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Mindful : December 2016
UNDERSTANDING THE TEEN BRAIN We need to give it the space—and the safety—to grow A TIME OF RAPID AND RADICAL BRAIN DEVELOPMENT • The stimulation-seeking part of the brain, the reward system, is highly sensitized during a time of hormonal surges. Emotion is height- ened. As Laurence Steinberg writes, “Nothing...will ever feel as good as it did when you were a teenager.” Or, as bad—when rewards prove elusive and hopes are unfulfilled. • The self-regulatory systems develop slowly. Risk-taking in pursuit of rewarding feelings is likely. It’s not a lack of intellect: risks are under- stood, but rewards loom large. • A highly sensitized social brain is deeply attuned to others’ expres- sions, feelings, and opinions. • Steadily growing capacity for reasoning and abstraction can lead to bold creativity. It’s not a stage to “get over,” says Dan Siegel. “It’s a stage to cultivate well.” Some 36 million people in the US are between 12 and 24 years of age—a vital period of development many neuroscien- tists call the age of the adolescent brain, or the teenage brain. We’ve recently seen a profusion of books (see page 68) pointing out that many of us—and our institutions—have misapprehended the teenage brain and the human beings car- r ying one around. One high school board member put it to me that “Teenagers are idiots. They need to be protected from themselves.” Idiots? Ouch! What’s really going on, according to brain scientists, is a vitally important period of heightened receptivity (so one seeks out novel experiences), risk taking (to stretch limits), social sensitivity (to form bonds and alliances), and high plas- ticity (allowing for rapid skills develop- ment), to name a few. These features are necessary for a next generation to pave new pathways for the future. But they also make teenagehood a high-wire act that carries big risks. To balance these positives and negatives, the authors of the books say, we need to give teens lots of room, while paying enough attention to helping prevent risks to physical and mental health with potential conse- quences that are hard to recover from. All generations benefit when a new gener- ation is given room to grow and change the world, while being offered some protection that avoids smothering. Drawing on the books on page 68, here we summarize a few key neurosci- ence findings and highlight challenges and oppor tunities associated with this naturally wild and crazy time of life. – Barry Boyce, Editor-in-Chief ILLUSTRATIONBYMINDFUL,WITHSOURCEFILESFROMISTOCK.COM/EXDEZANDISTOCK.COM/DANIELRODRIGUEZQUINTANA 70 mindful December 2016