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What's Right With the Teenage Mind?
Earlier this year, Berkeley psychologist Alison Gopnik published an essay entitled, “What’s Wrong With the Teenage Mind?” in the Wall Street Journal. It was a very interesting piece—and one that got all the parents in my circle talking, both about their kids and their own crazy teenage choices. We may have tried to one-up each other a bit—in both categories.
In the piece, Gopnik argues that much of the seemingly inexplicable adolescent behavior observed in today’s teens (that far too often result in long-term detrimental consequences) may be due to a simple disconnect between two key brain circuits: one circuit responsible for regulating motivation and emotion systems and a second circuit that facilitates decision-making and behavioral control. She suggests that since teens are hitting puberty earlier, and staying in the nest longer, they may simply lack the hands-on experience to get these two key circuits in sync. She writes:
Brain research is often taken to mean that adolescents are really just defective adults—grown-ups with a missing part. Public policy debates about teenagers thus often turn on the question of when, exactly, certain areas of the brain develop, and so at what age children should be allowed to drive or marry or vote—or be held fully responsible for crimes. But the new view of the adolescent brain isn't that the prefrontal lobes just fail to show up; it's that they aren't properly instructed and exercised.
It’s an interesting idea, and certainly one with merit. But the title rubbed me the wrong way a bit. Despite the fact that I’d like to forget quite a bit of my own adolescence—and joked that I might see some benefit to shipping my son off to boarding school once he hits his—I don’t like the negative connotation that we’ve attached to adolescence, this pervasive notion that something is wrong or bad, that we have to somehow fix the brain to be more adult.
In fact, recent research in both animal models and human populations has led me to wonder if we shouldn’t be more focused on what the teen brain does right. Perhaps the solutions to widespread problems like teenage pregnancy, substance abuse and dangerous risk-taking could be tempered by tapping into the benefits of something that remains, at the time of adolescence, rather unfixed.
Because there is a lot about the teenage brain that is right. Abigail Baird, a neuroscientist from Vassar College, has been doing a lot of fascinating work on the teen brain. And she likens adolescence to a sort of second toddlerhood. Forget the terrible twos, she says. Parents and policymakers should be focusing a lot more on the terrible twelves.
When she first mentioned a second toddlerhood, I laughed. But the toddler years are a sensitive period where an awful lot of amazing things happen in the brain in order for babies to make the transformation into children. Those years can be awkward and rife with tantrums but they are also a period of incredible learning. Look closely and you’ll see something very similar in adolescents. Tantrums? Check. Boundary pushing? Check. Hyperbole? Check. A “me me me” mentality? Oh, yeah. But there is also this amazing ability to learn. “If you want to learn that second language or learn the skills to become that super-star jock, adolescence is the time to do it,” says Baird. “Everything is just exploding neurally and there is an amazing amount of learning that takes place. Just like toddlers are making that leap, learning all they need to go from babyhood to childhood, teens are learning an immense amount so they can become adults.”
Studies both out of Baird’s lab and others suggest that those out-of-control emotions and bewildering motivations that so many parents wish they could quash are actually important to all that critical pre-adult learning. “The teen years require a lot of trial and error,” Baird argues. “If everything wasn’t so dramatic and important and emotional, adolescents wouldn’t have the motivation they need to get back up and do it again when they fail. And if they are going to gain the experience they need to learn how to make good decisions, they have to get back up and do it again. And again. And again.”
Perhaps understanding why those moods and motivations so important can help parents better weather all of their related storms. Baird suggests that the terrible twelves are just as sensitive as the terrible twos—and it pays to parent just as thoroughly as one does with a toddler. She recommends, to start, allowing kids to explore with scaffolding, reducing teen class sizes in school and accepting that mistakes are going to be made. “I think that if there is any take-home message from my work and the work that a lot of folks are doing is that the teenage years aren’t all about storm and stress—there really is an opportunity to help kids grow into great adults,” says Baird. “It’s something that requires structure and parenting but adolescence, ultimately, is a great thing from a cognitive and brain perspective.”
An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.
- A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
- A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
- Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.
The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.
Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .
The Barry Arm Fjord
Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach
Image source: Matt Zimmerman
The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.
Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest
Image source: whrc.org
There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.
The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.
"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."
Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.
What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord
Moving slowly at first...
Image source: whrc.org
"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."
The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.
Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.
Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.
While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.
Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."
How do you prepare for something like this?
Image source: whrc.org
The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:
"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."
In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.
What makes some people more likely to shiver than others?
Some people just aren't bothered by the cold, no matter how low the temperature dips. And the reason for this may be in a person's genes.
Eating veggies is good for you. Now we can stop debating how much we should eat.
- A massive new study confirms that five servings of fruit and veggies a day can lower the risk of death.
- The maximum benefit is found at two servings of fruit and three of veggies—anything more offers no extra benefit according to the researchers.
- Not all fruits and veggies are equal. Leafy greens are better for you than starchy corn and potatoes.