Thursday, March 13, 2014

Power, Purpose & those Adolescent Years

Do you have experience with adolescence? Every human has, either with their children, a relative or, if memory serves, their own passage through those “emotional" years. It could be the toughest period of raising kids with parents trying to control the child who seems to be morphing into a strange being and a child who can’t understand why the parents don’t know how it feels.

I spent a splendid evening earlier this week in the company of my neurobiologist friend, Dan Siegel from UCLA Medical Center, who spoke exquisitely on understanding the adolescent brain. He decided to study it because of his own struggle with understanding his two children who passed through it and there was no good reference guide. He also found it quite insulting when people try to either ignore the symptoms of adolescence as a passing phase or blame it on "raging hormones”. It’s not uncommon to hear the cynical “I’m sorry" when when someone says they are raising a teenager. Dan’s research unravels the mysteries of an adolescent brain, particularly ages 12 - 24. If one makes the effort to understand, it could change the experience completely.These finding along with his recommendations, which are very handy for both parents and teenagers, are published in his latest book, Brainstorm.

So what exactly is the issue with adolescence? It’s quite like metamorphosis inside the chrysalis. The adolescence brain undergoes significant rewiring to prepare for it’s life outside the “nest”, where one can expect the unfamiliar, the unsafe, the uncomfortable and the uncertain. The process includes “pruning” of excess neurons and integration of the remainder with the laying down of myelin (“mylenation”) in the cortex. This transform the human from a knowledge soaking generalist to a rapid response specialist. The outcome is a system capable of performing 3,000 times faster. 

There are some psychological effects of this pruning/mylenation process worth understanding. First, pruning, just like the spring chore, turns one’s attachment from parents to peers. The individual yearns for identity with a group, sometimes leading to sacrificing morality for membership. The kid needs at least one peer for survival. Second, pruning reduces the dopamine level but produces a significant surge when there is novelty. So, it’s common for teens to be bored easily but at the same time put themselves (and others) at great risk to have fun. Third, because of the faster circuitry, it is easy of them to be hyper-rational thinkers. One may perceive it as impulsive but what their brain is doing is emphasizing the positive aspect of a situation, such as the cool video capturing me doing a backflip on the ski slope, while diminishing the downsides such as the possibility of landing on my head instead of feet. Fourthly, pruning could show signs of onset of conditions like manic depression and schizophrenia, which may have been dormant from birth. Fifth, stress compounds the effect of pruning.

For the urge to belong, instead of resisting their need to go to that late night party, influence them or involve them in a sport or hobby where the crowd is predictable. For the hyper-rational thinking and thrill seeking, encourage them to realize the harsh consequences their actions can have. The best app for that info is free and it’s called the ‘heart-brain’. Yes, Dan mentioned the neural network around the heart sends a signal that is different from the 'head-brain'. Listening to that signal requires some training, which some call mindfulness or meditation. On the psychiatric conditions, I asked Dan if there is anything one could do from a social support structure standpoint do minimize the escalation of those conditions. He was very cautious on this response. There is no scientific evidence of social factors having an influence in in either early childhood or adolescence on schizophrenia. However, for manic depression, also knows as bipolar disorder, meditation could improve mood swings. 

An easy acronym Dan suggested for a healthy adolescent brain is ESSENCE. ES is for emotional spark, or live life with a passion. SE social engagement, i.e., collaborative nature and building relationships in the community. N is for novelty, find new things to learn and do. And, CE for creative exploration, look at things in a new way. I think ESSENCE is good for any brain, young or old! After this talk, I came away feeling this book has the information to change the experience of adolescence, both for the teenager and the parent, from trepidation to celebration!

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