Thursday, January 30

Dan Spiegel author of Brainstorm- Notes from his talk at Spirit Rock

Optimizing the Essence of Adolescence

Dan Siegel is a pioneer in the field of Interpersonal Neurobiology, a term he coined to describe the interdisciplinary study combining psychology, sociology, biology, neuroscience, anthropology and other fields in order to understand the mind, especially with regard to brain development as explained by science and shaped by interpersonal relationships.

I caught Dr Siegal speaking at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center this weekend and while I was only able to stay for the first half of the talk I took away some inspiring ideas as related to Discovering the Hidden Power & Purpose of the Adolescent Mind.

While a child’s brain operates like a sponge soaking up the world around, the adolescent brain has at it’s central pursuit a process Siegel compares to remodeling a house.  And like most remodeling projects, this one can be kind of messy.  “Pruning” and “Myelination” are two of the central activities going on as the adolescent brain rewires it's in “use-it-or-lose-it” brain changing process.  Pruning refers to the loss of synaptic connections and Myelination is the strengthening of others allowing nerve cells are able to more quickly transmit information allowing for more complex brain processes.  The teen brain goes through this intense remodeling and rewiring for the necessary purpose of preparing to leave home.  

During the tween and teen years, myelination occurs in the frontal lobe of the brain and impacts cognitive development.  Improved "executive functioning," planning, reasoning and decision-making skills result.1

If you want to learn more about the myelination process as it relates to specialization and abilities, The Talent Code website has some nice visual models of the process as well as ideas for supporting the myelination process. 

It's not all upside.  It's true that...

Risk-taking and Novelty Seeking are Responses of the Developing Teen Brain

Part of the developing teen brain is the orientation towards seeking novelty and risk, which are a vital part of the process of becoming adults.  Teens have to go through this stage in order to learn how to take risks and to navigate the world outside of the safety of home.   The risk of the teen years according to Siegel has less to do with sex hormones as the cultural myth suggests and more to do with changes in the structure and functioning of our brain’s dopamine reward system.  Teens tend to be intellectually aware of risks but they put more weight on the exciting potential outcomes.  And because baseline dopamine levels are lower in adolescence while dopamine release amounts are higher adolescents seek experiences that secrete dopamine.2,4

Three dangers the teen brain is more susceptible to are impulsiveness, vulnerability to addiction and hyperrationality.  If we are aware of the inclinations we can help protect adolescents and provide appropriate opportunities for risk-taking and novelty seeking that are have very positive applications.  Impulsiveness mitigated by self-awareness and reflection, or “cognitive control”.  


Because teens are 1) impacted by peer pressure 2) more likely to experiment with new experiences AND 3) more prone to respond with a strong dopamine release which can become part of an addictive cycle the adolescent stage of life 3,4

The reward systems and other areas of the subcortex such as those parts that process emotions, reach maturity relatively early (when people are in their early teens)6

Hyperrationality: Thinking in literal concrete terms.  examining just the fact of a situation and missing the big picture.  Creates the positive bias that is dominant during the teen years.

My husband suggests that the evolutionary motivation for rewiring with a strong response for dopamine rewards is related to increasing motivation to propogate.


Another one is what I call hyper-rational thinking, and this is where, it’s not the reward circuit, but what are called the appraisal circuits that change. And these appraisal circuits, basically, are weighing the pros and cons of the decision. So this would be relevant for drug use in that you may have people who are making choices about things where it isn’t in their best interest. The appraisal system, the upside is that it says, these are the exciting things going on, and this is why I want to do this, this will be really fun. It over-emphasizes the positive aspects of a choice, and it de-emphasizes the negative aspects of a choice. The overall result is you kind of rationalize it, and that’s why I call it hyper-rational.4

Pruning process reveals vulnerability plus stress increases pruning plus lack of sleep.  Give practices to grow integrated fibres to strengthen brain and protect from the danger of risks like mental breaks,  depression, schizophrenia.

Preventable accidents
-appraisal system weighs pros and cons and in teen brain this evaluation is skewed.  Why? To create rites of passage which is needed for the larger process of preparing them to get out of the house.
-pushing against the adult world...creating a whole new world.
-(childhood is sponging up the world of adults)
-major innovations in art science music come from adolescents.  Let's rethink this and capitalize on the courage and creativity of youth.  Instead tell them the truth.  Ue companies are motivated to get you addicted for their own benefit
-help adolescent to create an internal compass (my gut says don't do it)...empower teens with resource of deep internal compass

What Can Be Done

internal education, the kind of internal sense of yourself, the likelier you are to be able to regulate, for example, your emotions and clarify your thinking.

Essence of changes of remodeling

E Emotional spark (irritable and life has more vitality..optimize spark)

SE Social engagement (vulnerable and gets you ready to leave home with alternative influences)

Novelty (dangerous,  can't just do same old thing

CE Creative Exploration (new, all innovation comes from adolescence but can feel disoriented and identity confusion)

Top 4 things to keep brain young are the same four things

Cultural change means accepting this for adolescents and ourselves!

Approach world challenges in a way that engages those four things and creativity snd courage of adolescents tge opportunity to find solutions to the biggest problems is there.  How can you participate in taking this possibility and changing the cultural conversation to make this change.

The Essential Take-Away

I would what I took away from the first half of the talk as follows:

Our cultural tells an inaccurate story about teens which has us, and our teens, think of the time period of adolescence (roughly defined as 12-24) as something to get through; a period of ranging hormones and impulsiveness.  If we change our perspective and understand that the brain during those years is in a complex process of remodeling for the explicit purpose of leaving home and becoming autonomous we could better support the process; mitigate the risks that also come with the territory; and take advantage of the courage and creativity that are the gifts of that stage of life.  Further, if we as adults use some of the same techniques for developing and enhancing the implicit benefits in our own brains, we’d would have that much more to contribute and be more in line with and synergistic with our teens ability to challenge and innovate and solve big problems.  Adolescence is not a stage to get over, it is stage to cultivate well in order to enhance the vitally important developmental changes which are crucial for the individual and our collective. 

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