The Rebellious Brain: Harnessing the Passion of Adolescence

To enter adulthood, your brain needs to remodel itself to handle the unsafe and the uncertain. 

Marlon Brando's character in the movie The Wild One is asked what he is rebelling against. His answer: "What have you got?"


Rebellion, and the desire to shape one's identity, has long been understood to be a normal aspect of the adolescent experience. There is also a pervasive belief that rebellion is simply the result of raging hormones. Adolescence happens. Just get through it.

However, as Dr. Daniel Siegel points out in today's Specific Gravity segment, we know so much more today about what goes on inside the brain that shapes rebellion and the quest for identity. The brain is actually remodeling itself during adolescence in order to prepare itself to go out into "the uncertain and unfamiliar and unsafe world" that is outside of the home.

The changes in the brain that occur during this time are not only fascinating, but can also be very useful. Dr. Siegel, the author of Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, says that you as an adolescent or an adult taking care of an adolescent and supporting their growth can do some very practical things to set yourself on a positive course into adulthood. 

Remodeling

Instead of thinking of adolescence as a bunch of "hormones going nuts," Siegel says you need to think of the brain as a plant. In order to grow in a healthy way, a plant is pruned. Pruning the garden of the brain is a destructive process, but it is a healthy process. Will you continue to use a foreign language or play a musical instrument or will you give it up? You can choose to strengthen these skills. On the other hand, if you give up soccer, those circuits will wither away. So use it or lose it. 

When certain skills are practice, myelination occurs, which helps neurons communicate more efficiently. To illustrate this, Siegel points out that in executing on a particular skill, an Olympic athlete's neurons coordinate 3,000 times more effectively than yours. 

If you want to be an Olympic athlete, you not only need to start learning to ski jump at a very early age, you also need to keep practicing it throughout adolescence, as the essence of adolescence, Siegel says, is about the remodeling of the brain to optimize the skills that we will use as adults. Other essential aspects of adolescence that Siegel identifies includes seeking out novelty and undertaking creative explorations. The more you do this, the better you are able to remodel your brain and fully embrace the passion of adolescence. 

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