Adolescence is a remarkable stage in life. If you were to take a look at the brain, there are mini electrical connections going on between billions of neurons. It’s like an ocean of fire with glowing bursts igniting all over the place. There are spurts of growth, maturity, and exploration happening in the brain, and in life too.
What’s fascinating about this is that the brain, during adolescence, is malleable. It’s flexible. New connections are being made and old ones can be broken. In his 2014 book Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, Daniel Siegel illuminates how brain development during adolescence influences teenage behavior and relationships.
Daniel Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA, has been studying the brain for over 20 years. His unique focus has been exploring the effects of meditation and mindfulness on the brain, and he has come to recognize that meditation and mindful awareness can alter brain function, mental activity, and interpersonal relationships.
Siegel places the teenage brain within the age window of 12 to 24 years. During this time, he says that, “Life is on fire.” Essentially, during this time your brain is open for growth. It’s open for change. It’s ready to be rewired. Seeing this, you can further your own growth and support it. Siegel suggests you can do this by getting to know the unique and positive qualities of your brain to help balance the downsides that will still be a part of adolescence. According to Siegel, these positive qualities of the teen brain are the tendency to search for what is new and novel, cravings for social connection, emotional responses, and an explosion of creativity.
Knowing this, you can transform what is old – unhealthy choices, dysfunctional participation in relationships – and make it work for you. For instance, imagine you’re going down a snowy hill on a sled. You can be flexible because you have the option of taking different paths through the soft snow each time. However, as you continue to choose the same path the second time or the third time, tracks will start to develop, and these tracks become really easy and efficient at guiding the sled down the hill. It doesn’t take long to begin to limit your choices to the one track that you have been taking again and again. In this sense, it is literally like getting stuck in a rut, following the same worn out path again and again. Taking a different path becomes increasingly difficult.
Yet, in the teenage brain, there’s more malleability. There’s more opportunity to change what seems stuck. A real life example is when a person learns that bingeing and purging temporarily numbs anxiety. By choosing to binge again and again in order to minimize anxiety, a well-worn path develops. Over time, it becomes very difficult to change the course of one’s thoughts and behaviors. Bingeing and purging can easily become the only choice because it appears that nothing else works. The same process is happening when your self-talk is consistently self-defeating or when you go into panic mode in social situations and a social phobia develops.
The track of snow metaphor, originally created by neuroscientist Alvaro Pascual-Leone, describes well what happens when you get into grooves in relationships, ruts in your thinking, and potholes in your life. But, thanks to the brain’s wondrous capacity for learning and rewiring itself, which is technically called neuroplasticity and is in high gear during adolescence, it’s not impossible to change your patterns regardless of how worn out those paths down the hill become.
This is why paying close attention to your present circumstances is so important, versus unconsciously making similar choices to those you made in the past. What helps is staying keenly aware of what you are doing while you are doing it in order to facilitate finding a different path through the snow. Carrying out action patterns that are positive and healthy may be challenging at the start, but with practice, they too can become habitual. Finding and creating new worn-out paths (healthier ones!) is the definition of neuroplasticity.
The way you begin to find and create new neural connections in the brain – and new experiences in your life – is through the choices you make. With each choice you make, you create a new life. In fact, Siegel writes that the old myths about the teenage brain are not only wrong; they are destructive. Instead, use the power of your growing brain to work for you – use the explosion of creativity that’s happening within and create a new life for yourself.
Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain. Dr. Dan Siegel. Retrieved on April 1, 2014 from: http://www.drdansiegel.com/books/brainstorm/