Coming to Terms with the Teenage Brain

Coming to Terms with the Teenage Brain

These weekly/monthly posts began January 28, 2008, with the e-newsletter: Mindfulness and Empathy Create Conscious, Compassionate Connection based on hearing Dan Siegel speak at Spirit Rock Meditation Center about his latest book Mindsight: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being.

I heard Dan speak at Spirit Rock Meditation Center again last week about his now latest book, New York Times bestseller Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain. Dan uses neuroscience to dismantle the harmful prevailing myths about adolescents – that they are crazy, or lazy, or moody; that adolescence is a time to simply get through and survive, for both parents and the teens themselves.

Dan makes the case that, because the primary job of the brain in this phase of development is to help prepare the 12-24 year old (the brain’s timetable) to leave home and establish an independent and meaningful life, much of what appears to be rebellious or rejecting in adolescent behavior is actually the brain providing the necessary neural pruning and hormonal boosts for adolescents to successfully move into the new and unknown.

Dan speaks eloquently of the courage and creativity inherent in the adolescent brain, even suggesting that the exploration and innovation needed to carry each generation of “oldsters” forward into what’s unfamiliar can come from the developmental changes of the adolescent brain, if valued and supported.

Half of the text of the book is devoted to exercises for adolescents (and their parents) to embrace the power and purpose in their own brain. One of my favorites:

Insight and SIFTing the mind:

Right now, try closing your eyes and simply ask yourself, what am I sensing right now in my body? You may feel tension in your muscles or you may sense your heart beating, your lungs breathing, or simply a wash of sensations from the body as a whole.

What images come up in my mind’s eye? Images may take many forms, including the familiar visual ones. But you can also have images of sounds and touch, an image of a time of your life or some hope for the future. Images may be hard to put into words, but don’t worry about that – simply being aware of these inner mental experiences is what matters now.

And what feelings are inside me? Emotions can involve bodily sensations, yes, but they also link our bodies to our thoughts, to our memories, and to our perceptions. Becoming aware of your emotional feelings can fill you with a wash of energy that may be challenging to name, which is fine. Just becoming aware of your emotional state is a great starting place.

And now, what thoughts are streaming through my consciousness? It’s funny, but no one really knows exactly what a thought or thinking really is! So don’t worry if it’s hard to define what you mean when you say you are thinking this or that. Some experience an inner voice that they can hear, others just a sense that has no words. It is fine however thoughts emerge; you just need to let yourself be aware of whatever comes up for you right now.

This is the basic way we can SIFT our sea inside to see what is going on. When we SIFT through our minds, we check inwardly on the Sensations, Images, Feelings, and Thoughts going on inside ourselves at any given moment. “SIFT” is an apt term to describe the process, of course, because all of the many sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts that may come up in awareness are often connected to one another in a free-flowing process.

We don’t need to worry about putting words to these inner experiences; simply becoming aware of our internal worlds is the essential component for this SIFTing practice. As we become more familiar with it, we can try journaling as a means for further exploration.

Greater Good Science Center’s review of Brainstorm.

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