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BrainstormReview - Brainstorm
The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain
by Daniel J. Siegel
Tarcher, 2014
Review by Roy Sugarman, Ph.D.
Dec 16th 2014 (Volume 18, Issue 51)

I am always amazed when I see parents negotiating with young children and then demanding complete compliance with teenagers. After all, young children need to be told what to do, whereas teenagers are only desperately trying to negotiate their autonomous progress in the world, and find their own voice. This is why the arborization and pruning of the teenage brain on its way to eventual young adult maturity is such an interesting time for both them and parents, and of course researchers such as Dan Siegel.

Not just theoretical, Siegel regularly interfaces the book with sections of ‘Mindsight’ tools for teenagers to use as practical ways to strengthen their minds and improve their day to day lives, a great attraction of this book and quite an innovation.

For the first section, Siegel explains what is going on, and then how the teenager can set themselves up for a better-brained life by taking steps to address the issues arising in the Brain-storm of adolescence.  This moves on to the third section, and reasonably this is all about relationships and how they reciprocally interface with all of the action taking place in the brain. As with self-determination theory, this action around relatedness is crucial to the outcomes of this so-called turbulent period in the teenage life.  This leads in turn to the fourth part, hence the mind-sight tools, of being present and actively engaged in the vicissitudes of this time in the teenage evolution.

An interesting approach Siegel takes is to allow those who are really action orientated to look only at the research-derived Mindsight portions of the book, trimmed with dark borders, and get into the action-orientated sections, or for those who are more serious minded, and want to know how he got these exercises going, the interstitial chapters are available for scrutiny.   Part IV is a more story-based section, so the reader can actually just start there.  In this way the essential features and challenges of adolescence can be harnessed and harvested to create a better world for the adolescent at the end of this often perplexing journey.

The point of the adolescent brain maturation is to enable four qualities, namely novelty seeking, social engagement, emotional intensity rises, and creative exploration intensifies, all supported by growth and maturation in the brain circuitry that subserve these functions, as any motor vehicle insurance company actuary will attest to. Reward seeking behavior driving the adolescent to new things, connect with peers in novel ways, experience relationships and emotions with increasing intensity, and push back on the old ways of doing, namely exhibit some rejection or rebellion against set ways of doing things. Siegel of course will point out the upside to all of these, but the potential is there for a downside, as he elaborates. For instance, we all know that seeking novelty for the sake of learning is amazing, but seeking novelty only for the excitement of risk sees off many youngsters into death or disability, if that is the main focus.  As with elephants whose older role models are culled, the focus on teen values and the neglect of adult advice leads to adoption of risky behavior or rebellion, but also gives opportunity for creativity in relationships and the building of adult networks for the future. Again, emotional intensity creates a vital scenario for passion, but can lead to increased risk of heartache and moodiness, even disillusionment.  Searching for meaning in life can be frustrating, or it can be a process of constantly moving forward. Mental excitement and mental confusion can run in parallel, hence his subtitle: how do we maintain the power and purpose of the young mind so that a productive emergence into adulthood can be realized?

He uses the mnemonic ESSENCE: emotional spark, social engagement, novelty, and creative exploration to keep the above in mind. The downside is that although teenagers are fitter and healthier than either children or adults, they make up the biggest chunk of statistics when it comes to avoidable death, as I hinted above in the risks and rewards payoffs inherent in the ESSENCE’s he speaks of: the risks are THREE times greater in this period.  Siegel thus has to address the issue of maximizing reward while minimizing risk, which is after all the salient drive for all of us, so enhanced in young adulthood. But the period from 12-24 is the most dangerous time for all of us, as we push boundaries, sometimes to our detriment. With what he believes is an increasing disconnect between teens and today’s world, as evidenced perhaps by school shootings for instance, Siegel has set out to address this to maximize the potential of these years without increasing, and in fact attempting to decrease hostile learning events, each with a degree of personal tragedy.

The push in adolescence is thus against the known, the safe, the familiar, a two edged sword built into our genes, and unavoidable if growth is to occur, and certainly this is the core of innovation for the brain and brain output. Another modern potential for disruption is the earlier onset of puberty, and the extended journey towards mating and breeding, leading to a longer adolescence than history has recorded, in the present Western ecosystem. Losing the familiar and safe might thus happen earlier, and hence the presenting forces of the exciting but unfamiliar and unsafe might challenge us younger and younger.

Part two, as promised addresses the brain, rewards, dopamine, etc.  Integration of the brain activity remains prominent in both the first set of Mindsight tools that precede this chapter, as well as in it, meaning embracing a wider range of behaviors, as well as experiencing connectedness, belonging, as a result of greater coordination of structures and their functions.   This relatedness, or increased need for it, results again in vulnerability and opportunity both, as there is a ‘letting go’ of brain connections, the things of childhood, and a building up of the new drives and the structures that subserve them, in a more integrated way.  Average pruning of the brain may unmask vulnerabilities leading to difficulties in working out self-identity, or the dysregulation of emotions, or ‘flipping our lids’.

Part three thus predictably reaches out to embrace attachments as a core issue for adolescence, again referring to the relatedness and integration mentioned above.  Without these, we risk being chaotically overwhelmed or rigidly shut down, rather than embracing relationships with passion.  Secure models for attachment, namely integrative social connections, especially early on, are critical here as expected. These offer a safe harbor of support, to turn to in moments of distress, as much as supporting how we go out and explore the world. This would be why for instance a person with Borderline Personality traits of emotional dyscontrol and anxious or hostile attachments would both experience no safe haven, and also avoid a voyage of interpersonal discovery. This combination of safe harbor and launching pad is essential. Attachment thus means being seen, safe, soothed and secure. It can also mean however, not just secure, but perhaps avoidant, which means seeking secure attachment somewhere else, not avoiding security after all. Ambivalence is also another form of attachment, where there is inconsistency or intrusiveness from a parent. The disorganized type would then be able to be expressed in the context of the previous three. So you can’t simultaneously go toward and away from the source of attachment, leading to fragmentation, and often dissociation, making it difficult for you to prosper in life.  Without a secure attachment figure, reactive attachment allows connectedness to a wide range of characters that enter our lives, but this is really the absence of attachment, and separate to the other models, or versions.

Facing these is then what Siegel refers to as integrating the brain, namely re-organizing and associating rather than the dissociation and fragmentation of the disorganized and reactive states.

Section IV deals with love and romance, and really this is the heart of the matter for most fledgling relationships in adolescence, as this is a time of very labored attempts to interlink with others your age, who are pretty much in the dark in terms of experience as you might be at that time in your life.

Siegel has written a great manual for not only adolescents, but for those who never negotiated adolescence well, or whose attachments and romantic interludes were a time of negotiation and learning, sometimes not complete and sometimes heart-churning. It is really really well designed and written, with great mindsight inserts that help bring it all together and make it real. Not just for the end user, but for all who wonder about that time in their lives, or their children. Siegel never fails in his writing to achieve his ends, as he does here, with both applied power and success in achieving his purpose.


© 2014 Roy Sugarman



Roy Sugarman, Ph.D., Director Applied Neuroscience, EXOS, USA.


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