A panel of journalists joins Diane for analysis of the week's top international news stories.
Adolescence is universally recognized as a trying time for parents and children. But new brain research suggests this period of immature and often reckless behavior is more than just a stage for parents and teens to endure. It is a vital time for adolescents to chart the course for the adults they will ultimately become. One brain researcher points out that it is during our teen years that we learn how to navigate the world outside the safety of home, how to connect deeply with others and how to safely take risks. He says that by understanding how the brain functions, teens can improve their own lives and those of their parents. Diane and her guests discuss the power and purpose of the teenage brain.
- Daniel Siegel clinical professor of psychiatry, UCLA School of Medicine and co-director, UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center.
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from “Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain” by Daniel Siegel. Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Siegel. Excerpted by permission of Tarcher/Penguin. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. As parents of teenagers know, a child's adolescent years can be frustrating. But a clinical psychiatrist at UCLA claims those years are also the most powerful phase of life for triggering courage and creativity. In a new book, he offers a road map for parents to understand how to survive a child's teenage years and how adolescents can live up to their greatest potential.
MS. DIANE REHMHis book is titled "Brainstorm." Dr. Daniel Siegel joins me here in the studio. We'll be happy to take your calls, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to you, Dr. Siegel. Thanks for joining us.
DR. DANIEL SIEGELGood morning, Diane. It's great to be here. Thank you.
REHMYou know, I'm fascinated that one of the subtitles of your book is "An Inside-Out Guide to the Emerging Adolescent Mind, Ages 12-24." I'm really surprised that you put young people as old as 24 into adolescence.
SIEGELYes. That's the really exciting thing about our new understanding of this important period of life is that the teenage years, 13 through 19, of course are named that because they're teens. But in fact, the developmental period of change that we now understand in a very different way -- because we can look into the way the brain is changing -- actually extends between about 12 or 13 years of age all the way into the mid-20s.
SIEGELThese changes in the brain have important implications for how we understand the many challenges of adolescence. And so I wanted this subtitle to indicate that adolescence doesn't end when the teen years ends. It actually goes on into the mid-20s.
REHMNow, I wonder if you, doing research on this, say, back in the '50s, would have said the same thing. Or is it that our society, by its own evolution, has extended those years into the mid-20s?
SIEGELWell, Diane, that's a fantastic question. One of the centers that I run at UCLA looks at that exact question of how culture shapes development and shapes the way the structure of the brain is actually influenced by messages we get from our parents, from our teachers, from the larger society, from media. And so it's a really important point you're making.
REHMAnd they're very different today from what they were 50, 60 years ago.
SIEGELThat's right. I mean, there's a number of changes. So the first thing to say is that if we were having this discussion 200 years ago, we would say that the onset of sexual maturation, called puberty, would be around 15 or 16 years of age, not the 10, 11, 12 it is now for -- at least for girls and about a year and a half older for boys.
SIEGELThis onset of puberty roughly corresponds, not always, but with the onset of adolescence, the changes in the way we feel and think and are able to process information. So in those days, 200 years ago, the period we would call adolescence, which can simply be defined as that period between childhood dependency and adult responsibility, that was about two years, so you'd go through puberty around 15 or 16.
SIEGELYou'd get settled into adult responsibilities of work and raising a family around 18 or 19, so that's about a two- or three-year period of time. Now, this period between childhood, which seems to end in terms of the onset of puberty, earlier than ever before -- and for reasons we don't understand fully -- and it extends in terms of how the brain is changing way into the 20s.
SIEGELAnd that may be because of cultural issues. It may be because of factors related to nutrition. We actually don't know. But at least in Western cultures, especially the United States where the brain has been studied the most, we know that the brain, it continues to develop in very important ways through the mid-20s.
REHMYour book is titled "Brainstorm."
REHMDescribe the brainstorm you see.
SIEGELYeah. Exactly. You know, it's so great to be here with you and face to face and see the excitement on your face 'cause I felt it too. We have an almost 20-year-old and a 24-year-old in our family, and also I'm a child and adolescent psychiatrist. And in working with these kids and that are younger and also adolescents during this period of time, it was exciting to see the emotional energy that is one interpretation of the word brainstorm, that there's this flood of mental excitement is actually in the dictionary.
SIEGELBut there's also another kind of brainstorm, which is how we collaborate with each other and share ideas, which is also a meaning of the term brainstorm. And a third meaning is that sometimes there's what's called mental agitation. That is, the changes in the structure of the brain, not raging hormones like we used to believe, but changes in the way the brain is developing during this period of time actually lead to sometimes challenges to how we feel and think and process information. That's another kind of third interpretation of the work brainstorm.
REHMTell me, if you can, exactly what you see happening within the teenage brain.
SIEGELYeah. Well, it's a great question. The first thing to say about changes in the teenage brain is that, before about 12 or 15 years ago, we didn't know any of these things because the technology didn't exist. And so we were saying things that became cultural myths that professionals were passing on, parents, teachers...
SIEGELSuch as the way that the adolescent changes is because of raging hormones, which, of course, hormones 'cause of puberty. You have the development of sexual maturation. Hormones rise. But we don't believe that the changes in adolescent thinking and feeling are due to raging hormones. So what are they due to?
SIEGELWell, we started studying the brain here in Washington at the National Institute of Mental Health, at UCLA, and other institutions. And they started saying, well, let's look at the healthy average, if you will, adolescent, how they go through the period before puberty has its onset, how they then move on into their adolescent years and then into adulthood. And...
REHMDid you have volunteers for this?
SIEGELYes. The -- well, some of the kids were paid a nominal amount, at least at the studies at UCLA. And what was exciting about it was you could follow a single child as he or she was growing up.
SIEGELAnd you could then make the following statements. Number one, the brain goes through a process called remodeling. We didn't have any idea about this before. Remodeling is -- if you think about a house, a house has a certain structure. And let's say you're living in the house and say, all right, we want to change its structure a bit. So it's not like a brand new house. It's an older house, and that's the preadolescent brain, if you will.
SIEGELThe remodeling has two parts to it. One basically shocked everybody. It's something called pruning. And pruning means -- like in a garden when you're going to take away some of the extra vegetation, you prune it away from, let's say, a tree or a bush -- there's pruning that has an intense onset when adolescence begins.
REHMHow do you see this? What is it you see that you can define as pruning?
SIEGELSure. Well, literally, from scientific point of view, what you see is that, in the brain scans that you do -- these are structural brain scans -- you find that there's gray matter and white matter. The gray matter indicates the cell bodies. The white matter indicates the long tracks that come from the cell bodies that allow the basic cell of the brain, the neuron, to connect to other neurons with something called myelin.
SIEGELSo there's white matter that's the connections. There's the gray matter that are the cell bodies. There's a decrease in gray matter that surprised everyone that's pretty significant. And this pruning, we think, is genetically governed, but it's intensified by stress, we believe. And it's also shaped by your experience. So the phrase use it or lose it, it -- we believe influences adolescence.
SIEGELSo if adolescents aren't learning a foreign language before adolescence starts or during adolescence or learning musical instruments or athletics, then the circuitry, that was the potential for them to develop those skills, may start to literally be pruned away. And so in a way, what that means is that the adolescent remodeling is about specialization. Before adolescence hits, we're kind of generalists.
SIEGELWe should be able to learn anything. We may have passions for this or that or skill sets for this or that. But we're open to learning all sorts of things. As you go through the adolescent period, you become specialized. So that's one thing, pruning. The second thing that was fascinating to find was that the -- OK. The gray matter was decreasing, so we knew cells were actually becoming less common in the brain, not more.
SIEGELBut then there was increases in the white matter. This is what's called the myelin tracks. What myelin is, is, if you can imagine two neurons connected to each other, they can communicate well if they're connected. That's called a synaptic connection, a synapse. But if you lay myelin between the two, essentially, you're making them 3,000 times more effective in how they communicate. That's both speed and coordination.
SIEGELSo the remodeling has the pruning, yes. But it takes the remaining neurons, the ones that haven't gone away because of pruning, and it allows them to be more interconnected with myelin. And this increased myelin allows them to actually be more coordinated and balanced. So ultimately what you're doing is you're differentiating areas of the brain and then linking them, and that essentially explains what's called integration.
SIEGELThe adolescent brain is becoming more integrated during the second dozen years of life. And integration is the basis of health. So in the brainstorm approach, what I say is, hey, pruning is going to happen, and myelination's going to happen. Let's give you exercises -- what I call mind sight exercises -- to increase the integration of your brain as you go through this period. So if you have vulnerabilities or if you're just a regular person going through this development, you'll strengthen your brain.
REHMDaniel Siegel, his new book is titled "Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain." Short break here. When we come back, we'll talk more, take your calls, your email. I look forward to speaking with you.
REHMAnd welcome back. Daniel Siegel is with me. He's professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine. He's also co-director of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center. He's written a new book all about the teenage years, but do not restrict the teenage years in your own mind. He regards them as beginning at around age 12 and going into the mid 20's. Do join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. One other technical aspect I also want to ask you about, is the presence of dopamine in the teenage brain because you say there is an abundance of it.
SIEGELYes. So dopamine is a chemical that functions as what's called a neurotransmitter. So what that means is it allows neurons to communicate with each other. It also has an important role in a general set of circuits in the brain called the reward circuits. Among other things it can influence motor behavior in all of us, but its impact on adolescence is really about reward. What does reward mean? It means what are we drawn to do and when we do it we feel like it was rewarding to do that thing.
SIEGELSo one of the views of the studies of dopamine in the adolescent brain is that two things happen, the baseline level of dopamine compared to a younger child is actually decreasing. But the other studies show that actually the release levels are increased in abundance. Now, you may say why would this happen.
SIEGELWhat's the purpose of this? So the other subtitle of the book, "The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain," refers to this. When you think of adolescence as a period, not just to get through and barely survive, but actually something very important in all of our lives, something we can actually thrive with, you can understand that by the following view. To go from the way as children, we're dependent on our parents for everything, for a sense of security that comes from being seen, being safe, being soothed by our parents. If we didn't have some fundamental change in how the brain was functioning why would anyone leave the comfort of the home nest?
SIEGELSo as a parent it's very helpful to say, okay, well, there's got to be some transition period where you, as a brain, go, okay, I'm done with this pure dependency. Let me try to explore the world. Let me use my home base as a launching pad to now get ready for more, initially, independence, where I'm going to push away from what's familiar, which is my parents, and seek what's novel. So to do that you need a shift from the child brain to the teenage brain. And one way that nature allows that to happen -- in addition to the remodeling we were talking about -- is by changing the reward system of the brain.
SIEGELAnd when you lower the dopamine it means an adolescent can get feeling a little bored sometimes, a little restless. Like I need to do something, I need to do something. And that's a common feeling during adolescence. But then one of the most rewarding kinds of experiences are novel experiences, experiences which are new. Trying out new things, exploring new things, pushing the limits of what you're familiar with and going into the unfamiliar. Now, there's upsides and downsides to the major changes in the adolescent brain.
SIEGELThe upside to this is it gets you to basically have a brain that says I'm willing to take the risk to experience novelty. And, in fact, leaving home is a risk. So if you want your child to be ready to leave home before they're 50 years of age, you're going to honor this dopamine change and realize that the adolescent brain has to push the adolescent for risk-taking behaviors. The key is how do you deal with the downside in a positive, constructive way? The downside being you can have what's called hyper-rational thinking.
SIEGELWell, you can overreact emotionally. There's an emotional spark that is in the adolescent brain for other reasons besides dopamine, but that's a part of an emotional spark. There's a social engagement to try to connect with your peers more than your parents. And there's this novelty seeking that allows you to go out and try new things and creative explorations. Now, that spells the word essence. E-S, emotional spark. S-E, social engagement. N is for novelty seeking. And the C-E is creative explorations. This essence, E-S-S-E-N-C-E, this essence of adolescence is actually something that allows us to understand what the adolescent period is all about.
SIEGELBut actually, those four elements are what we need to hold onto in adulthood. So in terms of the dopamine question, Diane, here's the way to think about it. We, as adults, need to have other non-parental adults who can be around our adolescents, whether they're teachers or mentors or coaches. And we don't really have that in our culture. I think we need to create a new culture of conversation about adolescents to create this support because there's a natural push for risk-taking that's from this dopamine shift. And it leaves this thing called hyper-rational thinking, which is basically where you emphasize the positive aspects of something.
SIEGELWow, it'll be so exciting to drive a car really fast. And you de-emphasize the negative. That, in science, is called hyper-rational reasoning or hyper-rational thinking. One way to support your adolescent, to minimize the risks -- you can never guarantee anything in life, but to minimize the risks, is actually instead of just telling them what not to do, to get them in touch with what's positive in their own values. It goes beneath the circuitry of hyper-rational thinking to literally what your heart is telling you is right, what your gut is telling you. So in the mindset exercises it teaches the adult reading it, as well as the adolescent reading it -- because I wrote it for adolescents and adults…
SIEGEL…to develop this capacity to really cultivate an internal compass. So you say, you know, it would be exciting to drive that fast, 100 miles an hour, in a car with my friends, but, you know, I really could end up killing someone, my friends, myself, someone else, and that's doesn't feel right in my heart. My gut is telling me don't do it. Not that my parents are saying don't do it -- because the brain is kind of designed to push away from parental restrictions, but my own internal compass says this is the right way to go. And that's what we can cultivate in adolescence of the new generation.
REHMI'm fascinated that this presence of dopamine or the lack thereof is precisely what gets older people into the disease area, for example, Parkinson's disease.
SIEGELParkinson's, yes, absolutely. And that affects a lot of things, including the way the mind functions and emotions and the expression of emotions. Absolutely.
REHMBut what I'm wondering is whether in fact these dopamine amounts or presences are settled in that period. In other words, if you were to look at the adolescent brain, say age 24, and find a certain amount of dopamine, would that give you any clue as to whether that person in later life is going to experience one of those diseases?
SIEGELWell, it's an incredibly important question. I know in genetic diseases like Huntington's disease you see difficulties with dopamine.
REHMAnd early on.
SIEGELAnd early on, absolutely.
SIEGELIn Parkinson's my understanding is there's not the same genetic correlation. And I don't know of longitudinal studies -- that is long-term studies.
REHMI think it would be fascinating.
SIEGELIt would be important to address your question, Diane.
SIEGELI think for all of us we need to recognize two really important things that come from your question. One is that because of the dopamine changes in the adolescent brain the adolescent period is a time of risk for addiction because very activity -- like gambling for example, or substance, like smoking cigarettes with nicotine or drinking alcohol or other drugs of abuse -- they have their highest risk of developing an addiction…
REHMDuring that year, yeah.
SIEGEL…during those years. The second dozen years of life, the adolescent period. We believe it's because of this dopamine high-release level, so that you can basically train your brain to get used to a substance -- let's say alcohol -- that gets dopamine to be released, but then when you're away from the alcohol there's a crash in the amount. And you entrain your whole reward circuit to need it. And what's amazing about the recent studies on addiction is it isn't even just the drinking of the alcohol or the shooting of the heroin, it's the getting ready for it that releases dopamine.
REHMI wonder whether that might suggest that, as far as alcohol and drug addiction are concerned, that providing a drug like Sinemet, which is dopamine…
SIEGELFor Parkinson's treatment.
REHM…but it's being used in other situations, as well -- whether providing that kind of drug treatment might indeed help raise the dopamine levels which might restrict the release levels.
SIEGELWell, you know, Diane, you have a researcher's mind. And you are so close to the National Institute of Mental Health -- I would love to get you connected to some of the people that do that research. That's a brilliant research question.
REHMWell, it fascinates me. As I've said to you, my own husband does suffer from Parkinson's so I'm always interested in that.
REHMBut I find myself wondering to what extent that adolescent brain sets us forward…
REHM…to who and what we will become as adults.
SIEGELAbsolutely. I think that's a really important point. I mentioned there were two issues. One was the dopamine that puts us at risk of addiction. The second thing that also can set our course for the future is that most of the major psychiatric challenges, like depression or thought challenges like schizophrenia or anxiety issues like obsessive compulsive disorder, have the most common time that they have their onset is during the adolescent period. And part of what we're thinking about is that the pruning, that part of remodeling -- there's pruning and myelination -- the pruning, the carving away of neurons, can reveal vulnerable circuitry during the adolescent period.
SIEGELAnd that's one of our leading theories now about why the adolescent period is a time when psychiatric disturbances may arise. Now, all of those disturbances from the work I do in field called interpersonal neurobiology is to view mental health as coming from integration and challenges to mental health as coming from impaired integration. Integration is where you take differentiated areas, like a left and right hemisphere or a top and a bottom, and you take those separate differentiated areas and you link them.
SIEGELSo in our view, health comes from integration and leads to harmony, but impaired integration leads to either chaos or rigidity, which basically explains almost every psychiatric disorder. So the reason I wrote the "Brainstorm" book, among many reasons, was I said, well, if you could allow an adolescent to do mind-training exercises that are basically free -- and I teach them in the book -- that lead to an increase in integration in their brain, maybe you could prevent the onset of some of these difficulties.
REHMDaniel Siegel, M.D. His new book I titled, "Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." One other question I'd like to ask you before we open the phones, one of the issues that so many young people face is anorexia. How do you feel the teenage brain may explain or help us understand or even approach solutions to anorexia?
SIEGELAbsolutely. Well, it's a profound question you're asking. And anorexia is a part of a larger cluster of challenges called eating disorders and they do have a common onset of course in child and adolescence, especially during adolescence. And for those people who don't know the difference, anorexia would be where you restrict your intake and yet you have a body image that your body weight is "normal," it's your typical body weight, when in fact it's not. Sometimes it's mildly low, but to get the disorder it's sometimes severely low and sometimes life-threateningly low.
SIEGELSo it's a complex question to say what causes anorexia. And my recent readings of that literature is that people believe it's a complex set of things, perhaps genetic vulnerabilities, temperamental characteristics, experiential ones in the family, with friends, different things can happen. So it's what's called multi-determined onset. So that's the first thing to know, that it's not just what parents do, but certainly how we are as parents influences all sorts of things, even with genetic vulnerably at risk children. So that's the first thing.
SIEGELThe second thing to say is that adolescence as a period of course brings up, when the body starts changing at puberty feelings inside the body, sexual feelings, feelings of being attracted to people who you're attracted to -- whether it's same sex or opposite sex -- or people being attracted to you. And what happens with those feelings is they can make you feel out of control. They can make you feel so new and uncertain that feeling of anxiety can't be controlled. One of the theories is if you restrict your intake, as a female -- but even as a male it can lead to this, too -- it's basically a way of saying I take a feeling, like hunger, and I conquer it.
SIEGELI don't have to actually be a slave to my internal feelings. And the secondary outcome of that, which becomes a primary reward, is my body gets so thin that I lose my secondary sexual characteristics. I can even lose my menstrual cycle if I'm a female. And so it's a way where I've used my mind, if you will, to control my body. And so many people believe, whatever the cause, whether it's genetic or temperament or family experiences or a combination of all that -- because development is very complex. And if you're a parent listening to this, knowing that it's complex, it's just as important to take a deep breath and say, how can I embrace the complexity of it.
SIEGELIf you are an individual with anorexia listening to this, knowing that there's paths to healing that are really important to move toward -- in this sense this word, uncertainty, is usually very loaded for someone with anorexia. And it's not something that embracing is easy to do and sometimes professional help is often called for.
REHMCan you see changes in the brain…
REHM…in a young person who's experiencing anorexia?
SIEGELYou do see changes in the brain, but we have to keep in mind these are people who are starving themselves. And so we need to make sure that the changes that we do see are not just due to intake restriction. And so it's not really clear.
SIEGELYeah, because you have someone who's starving.
REHMYou don't know which came first.
SIEGELWhich is the cause, right. I mean there's some fascinating and important ideas about self-identity. And even in writing at the end of the book I talk about how do you actually develop a healthy identity and how do you integrate your identity. And those are things I think would be relevant to people with anorexia, as well.
REHMAnd Dr. Siegel, as we've said, has written this book both for those in these adolescent years, as well for adults. Short break. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. I'm talking with Dr. Daniel Siegel. He's clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, author of a new book. It's titled "Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain". He also calls it an inside out guide to the emerging adolescent mind ages 12 to 24. Let's open the phones, 800-433-8850. First to Cabin John, Md. Hi there, Evan, you're on the air.
EVANThanks, Diane. Great back-to-back shows. Way to start the year.
EVANTwo battles that we have with our 17-year-old son is one, going to sleep at night. His school gave him an iPad and he wants to watch shows on his iPad and he claims that helps him go to sleep. And we disagree but, you know, there are battles. And I wanted -- I know this has got to connect to Dr. Siegel's work and the brain. The other thing that's holding us, you know, we had unhappy experiences with his older brother having an Xbox. He really wants one. He thinks it would provide him with the recreational time that would keep him doing something that would be less bad.
EVANSo I was wondering if he could, after discussing the sleep issue -- because I just talked to another mother that said her son couldn't finish school because he couldn't get up to school in the morning.
REHMWow, yeah, it's a problem.
EVANAnd the pros and cons of Xbox.
REHMYeah, Dr. Siegel.
SIEGELWell, thank you, Evan. It's a really important question you're asking. And the first thing to say about it is some research studies suggest that the secretion of melatonin, which is the substance that helps us sleep, is actually delayed in adolescence. So one view is that there's a physiological reason why they actually stay up later. And that's just something we need to recognize as a culture because getting up early in the morning when you haven't been able to fall asleep until 1:00, it doesn't give you your eight to nine hours that the National Science Association of Sleep suggests we need.
REHMWhat about the stimulation, however, that does come from watching your computer, being on your computer?
SIEGELExactly. So the second issue then is that any of us, including adults, who do screen time where the screen is emanating photons, you know, light from itself into your brain is basically saying to you, this is time to be awake. So if for any people who, you know, just don't use electricity like when they're camping, you know when the sun goes down after a little bit of time you get sleepy and you go to sleep, and you get a great sleep.
SIEGELSo these electronic gadgets we have, any kind of tablet, any kind of computer, even television, stimulate the brain to stay awake. And sleep hygiene would suggest that we should have these gadgets off for about an hour before we're letting our brain go to sleep. So if you're already delayed because of this melatonin delay in release, it's really not a good idea to stimulate your brain even more. And I know with our kids we would really suggest to them an hour before bedtime having the screens off.
SIEGELNow, I got to say, my wife and I, we have to do that with ourselves too, you know, say hey, we have brains also so we should do it ourselves.
SIEGELNow in terms of the bigger question of, you know, relaxing and stuff like that, you know, there are these mind sight daily seven activities you can look at. We put them together in Healthy Mind Platter, but there's things to do to support a healthy mind. And those include sleep for sure.
REHMHere is an email from Judith. "Please talk about the young white men who commit mass murder. I think some parents of the children killed at Sandy Hook are using funds to study the brain."
SIEGELYes. Well, it's a really important question. The first -- and this question has a lot of very important aspects to it. First of all, the idea that these are young men and these are mostly adolescents between 12 and 24. They are mostly male so we need to recognize that there are influences of gender on behavior, especially on violence. That's just the truth about it. And there's lots of complicated reasons that we think violence is being created more and there's no simple answer.
SIEGELBut one of those issues is the idea of isolation, that adolescents are feeling not a part of culture. They're feeling not a part of a larger group that's moving through this period of time. There could be a huge amount of rage that's associated with that isolation. And when you combine that with what some people argue -- and again this is all controversial -- a feeling where you get a sense of reward through actions, let's say on the media of games where you're getting points for killing people, you know, in a digital game.
SIEGELThat doesn't mean that anyone playing a violent digital game will be at risk. But if you get a sense of reward, then for those who are vulnerable because of their isolation and other difficulties, we can begin to understand some of the complex personal developmental and cultural issues that play here. The questioner is saying white males. And, of course, asking a racial question is a huge, huge issue. And it's a very complex question and an important one.
SIEGELBut, you know, the way we're influenced in a society is influenced by how we're a part of that society. And whatever your racial background is, it's going to play a role in how you feel a membership in that society. So I can't really address that here and have anything that's been, at least what I've seen as any discussions about that.
REHMIf you have the opportunity -- and perhaps you have -- of looking at the brain, examining the brain through the technology you now have, examining the brain of a young man who -- let's say he's isolated. Let's say he feels totally apart from his peers. And he's watching these kinds of games on television or on his computer. Can you surmise what you might see in the way of brain activity?
SIEGELWell, one of the things we know is that when we look at the brain, the first thing to say is, it is an incredibly social organ. And so the brain is designed through its evolution to allow us to connect to other people. When you disconnect a human being from other human beings, then that brain doesn't function optimally. And in the series of books that I edit in interpersonal neurobiology, we have a number of textbooks actually reviewing this in great detail, that the brain is optimally functioning when it's socially engaged.
SIEGELSo then you can say, okay, well if a person's not socially engaged, why would they turn to violence? And the two things to address in terms of how the brain may function as you're asking, Diane, one is, it is true in the early adolescent period, which is not when most of these adolescents committing these crimes are, but is impulsive. That is, a deeper part of the brain, a lower part of the brain that's driven by rage, for example, or fear can take over the motor functioning of the brain so that an action turns into a behavior without reflection. That's what impulsivity is.
SIEGELSo there's no question early in adolescents that's true. But later in adolescents in general, though that can remain, the issue isn't so much impulsivity as it's this thing I mentioned earlier called hyper rational thinking. If a person feels so much pain because they're invisible and they feel that they will get notoriety by committing a heinous crime, murdering lots of people, my deep, deep, deep concern is that they're imagining that even though they'll be dead if they kill themselves in the process, they will be at least not invisible because people will be talking about them.
SIEGELThis became true in the study of suicide. You know, when an adolescent who in general is at a high risk of all sorts of dangerous yet preventable problems like suicide, when an adolescent has killed himself or herself, other adolescents who are also feeling disconnected, invisible, sometimes depressed but not always, they may see the notoriety that the suicide committer has achieved as something they want that's better than invisibility. And what was found was that there's an increase in suicide. It's a contagent.
SIEGELSo now we know in the media we do not publish or talk about suicides because other kids are going to be much more at risk of committing suicide. I'm wondering just about how the media attention has -- you know, which of course, wants to be paid because a terrible thing happened -- but it'll make those at risk say, wow I could be really famous if I do something like that. That's a concern because the brain is a social organ and invisibility is the worst thing for it.
REHMAll right. To Kate in Rochester, N.Y. You're on the air.
KATEGood morning, Diane.
KATEAnd thank you so much for taking my call.
KATEI just wanted to follow up on the last caller or the last email actually, because my concern is about how do you actually advance your research and apply it in a way that has some implications on the criminal justice system. And I'm thinking in particular the application of the -- trying young black males and young people of color as adults knowing this information that you've brought out in your research, how do they continue to justify this behavior, number one.
KATEAnd then number two, in response to your remarks about the notoriety effect that seems to really fuel some of the behaviors of particularly white males, I would say is probably just the opposite for people of color. There's really generally no notoriety for the type of violence and the type of issues that are happening, you know, amongst, you know, especially young black males when they perform some kind of a crime and end up being incarcerated at a very, very young age. There is no notoriety. It's considered just another day at the office. And so I'm wondering how do you justify that.
KATEAnd also, again, about the larger application for this type of research and how it really has an effect on the way we deal with our young people.
REHMAll right. Thank you, Kate.
SIEGELYeah, Kate, thank you so much for your really important question. And, you know, in our Center for Culture, Brain and Development we really try to look at these cultural issues, not just in this country but internationally, because it's exactly like you're saying. The differences in how culture treats people based on their race, based on their socioeconomic status, based on the differentiation of earning abilities, these all influence how people feel inside and how they behave.
SIEGELNow in terms of this issue of lack of notoriety and crime, in my reading of the research literature, which needs to be expanded of course, is to understand that how we behave in a cultural context can emerge where it's a pattern that could be related, number one, to the way our brain is functioning by what's it's learned, by a sense of desperation, and also by the accessibility to weapons. And this is something obviously that's a huge, huge question.
SIEGELI think that the issue of race in this country needs to be discussed more openly, you know. And when you say, Kate, the issue of how do we justify it, do you mean how do we understand it or -- I don't know what your thought is about that. So it's a really important general question of how these differences relate to all these very important factors in our culture.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Nancy in Dallas, Texas is asking the question that I think is on a lot of people's minds. "How do we as parents appropriately deal with the moodiness and personality change our teenagers go through during this time?" She goes on to say, "My son has turned into someone I don't recognize at times."
SIEGELYes. Well, thank you for the question. Let's begin here where the idea of this inside out guide to the mind includes our role as parents as well. And so the brainstorm book is written for adolescents to read and it's written for adults to read. So what parents who have begun to read the book have sent me notes about is that when you reframe your own understanding as a parent on what this adolescent period is, there's a widening of your acceptance of where your child is.
SIEGELSo for example, the essence of adolescents, the emotional spark, the first part of essence when we understand that the brain is changing in ways where the lower areas of the brain are pushing their inputs forward on the higher areas with more robustness. This emotional spark has a downside where kids can appear moody during this age. And just knowing that can allow you to understand this is not a problem. It's just a process that your adolescent is going through.
REHMBut you know, we as parents may feel it is wholly and solely directed at us.
REHMAnd what you're saying is, it's simply part of how the teenager feels.
SIEGELThat's right. And one good example of that from brain science is a study that shows that when you show a neutral face to an adolescent, they respond with a sense of hostility being directed at them. That is, they're very defensive and reactive. When I read that study with my own teens being in the house, it really helped me a lot because I said, well when I say, hey how are you and they come out, what are you saying, what are you saying like I'm attacking them. And I said, oh I just said hello and they go, there you go again. You know, it made me realize that, okay the brain is changing in a way where it's defending itself, especially from adults as it gets ready to push off.
REHMSo then what do you say as a parent?
SIEGELI take a deep breath. I make a space inside my own mind, which this book -- actually the "Brainstorm" book will help you do through all sorts of processes you can learn yourself as an adult. And I give them space. And then within a few moments -- because any emotion arise and falls in about 90 seconds.
REHMWhen you say you give them space, are you simply saying that you say nothing more and back away?
SIEGELWell, I -- that's a part of it. And part of it is that emotions are something that evoke emotion. And so if I engage my adolescent who's getting angry that I've said hello when they didn't expect it, they will get more intensely reactive. If I literally do what you're saying, I give them literally the space where I don't respond and just say, okay well that's fine. I take a step back. After 90 seconds an emotion will arise and fall like a wave on the shore.
SIEGELAnd when it does that, if you give the space it'll come back to an equilibrium. But if you engage your adolescent and say, you shouldn't talk to me like that, young lady, bla-bla-bla-bla, you can be sure you're going to have a long set of negative interactions that are really unnecessary. Understanding the brain change of the emotional spark, the social engagement that gets adolescents to push away, the novelty seeking that they need and the creative expirations, this essence is not only something that'll give you room for your adolescent to grow beautifully, but it'll allow you to remember what's important in your life as an adult to keep your brain growing young throughout the life span.
REHMMy children are grown, they're gone. I wish I had read this book when they were younger. Dr. Daniel Siegel of UCLA. His new book is titled "Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain." Congratulations, sir.
SIEGELThank you, Diane. A pleasure to be here.
REHMThanks for being here. And thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
Most Recent Shows
A panel of journalists joins Diane for analysis of the week's top national news stories.