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Mindful : June 2014
44 mindful June 2014 neuroscience Adolescence is as much a per- plexing time of life as it is an amazing one. Running roughly between the ages of twelve and twenty- four (yes, into our mid-twenties!), adolescence is known across cultures as a time of great challenge for both adolescents a nd the adults who support them. Because it can be so challenging for everyone involved, I hope to offer support to both sides of the generational divide. If you are a n adolescent, my hope is that the information I am offering will help you make your way through the at times painful, at other times thrilling personal journey that is adolescence. If you are the parent of an adolescent, or a teacher, a counselor, a n athletic coach, or a mentor who works with adolescents, my hope is that these explorations will help you help the adolescent in your life not just survive but thrive through this incredibly formative time. In recent years, surprising discoveries from brain imaging studies have revealed changes in the structure and function of the brain during adolescence. Interpre- tations of these studies lead to a very dif- ferent story than the old rag ing-hormone view of the teenage brain. A commonly stated but not quite accurate view often presented by the media is that the brain’s master control center, the prefrontal cortex, at the forward part of the frontal lobe, is simply not mature until the end of adolescence. This “immaturity” of the brain’s prefrontal cortex “explains immature teenage behavior.” This simple story, while easy to grasp, is not quite consistent with the research findings and misses an essential issue. Instead of viewing the adolescent stage of bra in development as merely a process of maturation, of leaving behind outmoded or nonuseful ways of thinking and transitioning to adult maturity, it is actually more accurate and more useful to see it as a vital and necessary part of our individual a nd our collective lives. Adolescence is not a stage to simply get over; it is a stage of life to cultivate well. This new and importa nt take-home mes- sage, inspired by the emerging sciences, suggests that the changes that occur in the adolescent brain are not merely about “maturity” versus “immaturity,” but rather are vitally important develop- mental changes that enable certain new abilities to emerge. These new abilities are crucial for both the individual and our species. Why should this matter to us, whether we are teens, in our twenties, or older? It mat ters because if we see the adolescent period as just a time to wade through, a time to endure, we’ll miss out on taking very important steps to optimize the essence of adolescence. Yes, there are challenges in staying open to the “work” of adolescence. Important opportunities for expan- sion a nd development during this time can be associated with stress for teens and for the parents who love them. For example, the pushing away from family that adolescents tend to do can be seen as a necessar y process enabling them to leave home. This courage to move out and away is created by the brain’s reward circuits becoming increasingly active and inspiring teens to seek novelty even in the face of the unfamiliar as they move out into the world. After all, the familiar can be safe and predictable, while the unfa miliar can be unpredictable and filled with potential danger. One histori- cal view for us as social mammals is that if older adolescents did not leave home and move away from local family mem- bers, our species would have too much chance of inbreeding and our genetics would suffer. And for our broader huma n story, adolescents’ moving out and exploring the la rger world allows our huma n family to be far more adaptive in the world as the generations unfold. Our individual a nd our collective lives depend on this adolescent push away. → Young Minds Three teenagers—who have all practiced mindfulness through iBme*—talk about how meditation has helped them. Nathan Worthen, 19 The teen years can be a frightening, dark time. I’ve had friends go ever y which way—depressed, wild, in trouble. I’ve had some of that too. When you pass the puber ty line, the change is so overwhelming it hits like a truck. Hormones bring on emotions that attack from ever y direction, and you also have so much more intellectual capacity than you did when you were child. You have so many more thoughts and feelings about what’s going on around you. It sometimes makes you want to hide from the world or indulge yourself. When adults lead with words but not by example, it’s less effective. You see them as authority figures instructing instead of living their own lives. The great thing about the mindfulness teachers I’ve had during my retreats is that they’re always learning, developing their minds. I’m inspired to follow that example. My biggest challenge is to be more generous to myself. The retreats have helped me stop thinking of myself as an idiot if I slip up. Being a teenager is trial and error time. There are a lot of mistakes to be made, but when you learn to rebound from them, it makes you stronger. → *Inward Bound Mindfulness Education (iBme) offers mindfulness retreats for teens throughout the U.S .