The capacities of the adolescent brain can invigorate adults
- Developmental neuroscience opens a positive view of adolescent brains.
- Adults can benefit from enlivening their brains like adolescents.
- Key daily practices enhance the best aspects of the adolescent brain.
Dan Siegel’s book, Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, offers a delightful approach to understanding and promoting the positive aspects of the teenage brain and avoiding pitfalls. Siegel identifies the period of adolescence as age 12-24 and brings together insights from his clinical practice, neuroscience and interpersonal neurobiology.
At the outset, Siegel dismisses several myths about adolescence adults sometimes have: (1) raging hormones cause adolescents to “lose their minds”; (2) teens are immature and just have to grow up; (3) adolescents are moving from dependence to independence.
Siegel wonders if some of the adult irritation with adolescents comes from envy of their obvious capacities. He uses the acronym, ESSENCE, to convey the notion of carrying forward into adulthood the adolescent brain’s positive capacities:
- ES for emotional spark or intensity
- SE for social engagement
- N for novelty seeking
- CE for creative explorations
These four qualities distinguish adolescent minds from the minds of children. Each carries risks and benefits. Increased emotional intensity enhances vitality and zest for being alive, though it can also lead to impulsivity and reactivity. Social engagement leads to creating strong peer relationships, though surrounded by only peers can increase risk taking. Novelty seeking orients teens to exploration and trying to new ways of doing things, though it can also overemphasize thrill and downplay risk. Creative exploration means the teen is able to think outside the box and create innovation while searching for meaning, though this can also lead to issues like succumbing to peer pressure or identity crises.
Siegel provides information about what he calls “mindsight,” the capacity to truly know the mind. Mindsight includes insight, taking the perspective of another, and integration. There are three basic kinds of “mindsight maps”: your own, that of the other person, and both together in relationship. Learning the skills of mindsight has three results:
“One is seeing the mind of oneself for insight. The second is seeing the minds of others for empathy. And the third means moving our own minds and those of others toward integration.” (p. 43).
Siegel explains each aspect and offers visualization and tactile exercises to strengthen mindsight skills.
Throughout the book, Siegel offers multiple practices that help the adolescent brain function at its best. For example, “time-in” refers to attending to our inner states. Time-in can be short (one minute) to long (45 minutes), helped by deep breathing and multisensory exercises he provides.
Time-in works best with attending to SIFT—sensing, images, feelings, thoughts—and with COAL: being curious, open, accepting and loving towards the experience.
Because relationships are key to our humanity, he guides the reader in figuring out and addressing their attachment style (secure, avoidant, ambivalent, disorganized). He provides guidance for creating healthy relationships and conversations, and repairing ruptures, through PART: presence, attunement, resonance and trust.
Other daily activities that support adolescent mental health include sleep time, focus time, downtime, playtime, physical time and connecting time.
Aimed at both adolescents and adults, Brainstorm is a handy, story-filled, how-to book designed to be read according to the preference of the reader. One can read through the book from front to back for informational science blended with stories. Or one can dive into a particular topic. Or, one can start a daily practice or two.
Overall, adolescence is the time for integration, of self-identity, but also an integration into the community. Siegel laments the loss of adolescent initiation rites that traditional societies offered their teens. Adults outside the family can be very beneficial in helping adolescents find their connections to the larger community, from me to MWe. “Embracing MWe also means that we experience the sense that we are a part of a larger whole, a part of a larger purpose in life than just our own personal journey” (p. 302). Savoring but also serving the world.