This week, several York community members emailed me links to an interview between Dr. Frances Jensen and Fresh Air's Terry Gross: “Why Teens Are Impulsive, Addiction-Prone And Should Protect Their Brains.” In that interview, Jensen, a professor, chair of the Department of Neurology at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, and author of The Teenage Brain, provides an overview of how brain development is responsible for teenage impulsivity. Across the interview, Jensen provides insight on endocannabinoids, dementia of the preoccupied, sleep disruptions caused by electronic devices, the importance of searching for and evaluating information as recognized in medical education field, and the value of end of day reflection activities in support of preserving brain health.
For many, the most valuable section of the interview will likely be when Jensen discusses how executive functioning, which suppresses impulse control, is managed in the frontal and prefrontal regions of the brain -- regions that continue to develop during adolescence (even into one’s 20’s) while the brain grows from back to front, insulating synaptic connections in a process known as myelination. The bad news, according to Jensen, is the brain’s enhanced synaptic plasticity at this time in life can lead to risky behavior, such as experimentation with drugs and alcohol (both which definitely impede learning in teenagers), and make for addiction-prone teens. Meanwhile, that same synaptic plasticity, Jensen explains, is also a boon: teenagers learn well because of it, too. And practice, Jensen says, leads to long-term potentiation of synaptic connections, which builds stronger connections and improved learning.
Jensen’s point on the importance of practice echoes the reporting of Daniel Coyle in The Talent Code, a favorite York Community Reading title, and a fascinating discussion of the equation that renders talent: ignition (inspiration) + deep practice + expert coaching. On Coyle’s blog, he extends that discussion, such as his thoughts on high-leverage practice, where he argues the athleticism and incredible catches of the NFL's Odell Beckham Jr. is actually “a feat of preparation.” Here, many will appreciate the visual reinforcement Coyle provides to argue that “high-leverage skills aren’t built in a few specialized sessions; they are built over time, through repetition and routine.”
If you like visual reinforcement, then you will surely enjoy Sarah-Jayne Blakemore’s 2012 TED talk “The mysterious workings of the adolescent brain.” The talk is a favorite for Ms. Torgenrud, and next week, her Psychology: Neuroscience and Ethics class will view it before creating a distillation of that research into a PSA of sorts. Like Jensen, Blakemore explains the dynamic nature of the teenage brain, or what Shakespeare penned in A Winter’s Tale “boiled brains.” But Blakemore also provides engaging visuals of structural and functional MRIs while discussing synaptic pruning, the social brain (facial recognition and taking into account other peoples’ perspectives), and the limbic system’s role in risk taking.In all of these resources, we find reinforcement of an essential message: the teenage brain is under development during a critical period of social, emotional, physical, and intellectual growth. Thus, we can best serve our teens by helping them understand how their brains develop and how healthy, smart choices can lead to healthy, intelligent brains.