Teen Brains, Danger, and Dopamine: Mindsight and our Internal Compass

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

Gever Tulley inspires us to think outside our usual parental box of "keeping our kids safe" with restrictive rules by letting them play with pocket knives, spears, fire, old gadgets and even the boundaries of the law. If our children never experience sharp corners, he suggests, we'll be we cutting them off from essential opportunities to learn about the world.

Tulley's notion resonates in a fascinating way with modern biology. For our immune system, for example, we need exposure to all sorts of dirt and germs to develop an internal guard that knows "self" from "non-self" and keeps us appropriately safe. And for our nervous system, the more we develop an "extended self" by being actively engaged with objects in the world, the more our brain can develop a sense of how our physical body can safely and effectively move through space. Kids need to directly experience the world around them, not just on screens in their laps. And just remember when you learned to drive--or when you taught your teen to drive. With practice, the sense of the car can become embedded in our representation of our body. Tulley has it just right. The lack of experience is why a new driver has such a hard time moving that huge object through space without running into another object.

We can offer an internal experience that can teach teens "mindsight skills"--ways of knowing their own inner sense of what is a good choice, that can also help them learn without shattering a leg. -- Daniel J. Siegel

And the adolescent period is filled with core features that often perplex not only adults, but teens themselves. In reviewing the latest studies about the teen brain, I was stunned to find that our new insights into the teen years are in conflict with the commonly held views about this important period of life. There's an emotional spark, a social engagement, a novelty-seeking, and creative explorations that emerge from healthy, natural changes in the adolescent brain that are often untapped, and unsupported, in our approach to teens. One of the misleading myths is that teenagers court danger because they are impulsive. While acting without thinking is present in the early years of adolescence, the drive to explore the world, to take on risks, is not just an outcome of an "immature prefrontal cortex" which can't delay gratification as is often stated.

Two fundamental changes in the teen brain can explain the finding that though the adolescent body is generally stronger and healthier than at other times of life, we are actually three times more likely to have a serious or fatal yet preventable injury during these second dozen years of life. What's going on that adolescence is such a dangerous period? Have we simply not been given enough spears to throw, fire to play with, or pocket knives to use? I don't think so. Studies reveal that the changes in two systems in the brain--the reward system and the appraisal system--are likely the cause for these behaviors that are not just acts of impulsivity.

When we look at the change between childhood and adulthood, the period called adolescence, we can see this as a now extended time (it is over a dozen years now, compared to a couple of years in centuries past) in which individuals need to have some fundamental shifts in brain function that can empower them to leave the familiar, certain, and safe home nest to move out into the unfamiliar, uncertain, and potentially unsafe larger world. By lowering baseline levels of dopamine--the chemical involved in the reward circuitry of the brain--and then raising release levels, the individual will be driven to escape baseline boredom to release dopamine with novel experiences. Novelty is one of the best ways to create that important sense of reward--and thrilling, risky behaviors can enhance that release. And since drugs and activities like gambling involving addiction also release dopamine, we can see why the adolescent period is the most likely time an addiction will develop in our lives.

Another brain change that supports the exploration needed to leave the nest but that also enhances dangerous activities is a shift in the appraisal circuitry of the brain that evaluates the PROS and cons of a choice before enacting a behavior. Scientists call this "hyperrationality" which involves an overemphasis on the PROS and a de-emphasis on the cons. The myth that teens simply don't know about dangers leads parents to inform, scare, or simply try to curtail their behavior. But studies suggest that it is not a teen's lack of knowledge or awareness, it is hyper-rational thinking that gets the individual jazzed about the upside of a choice and to ignore the meaning of the downside. Why else would you have the courage to leave home? And leaving home with the company of peers is a lot safer than going it alone. The cliff is there, the water sparkling, peers are a jumpin', and so will I. As my son's friend Benji discovered, sometimes there are rocks in that water, and after a summer in the hospital getting his shattered leg repaired, he learned to be a bit less hyper-rational, to think of the cons as well as revel in the PROS.

Tulley might appropriately say that Benji needed to jump to learn to pay more attention to hidden dangers beneath the surface of a choice. I would agree, but I'd add this: We can offer an internal experience that can teach teens "mindsight skills"--ways of knowing their own inner sense of what is a good choice, that can also help them learn without shattering a leg. One mindsight skill is to develop an internal compass that draws on the information processing of the intestines and the heart to give us access to a gut feeling or heartfelt sense of what to do. Mindsight empowers each of us to move beyond simply responding to others' commands--whether they are peers jumping off a cliff or parents limiting what we can do--and instead develop the internal guide of our own positive values. In a modern, busy life where we are all spending so much time on screens and having our attention governed by external devices, mindsight offers an antidote with which we can develop our internal compass to help guide us--and the spears we throw and fires we make--in ways that are helpful for ourselves, others, and the wider world in which we live.

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