Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Teenagers Shot for Developing Their Thinking

This story really bothers me.  I have debated if I want to blog about it knowing that my own biases and theories would seep in.  But after some time, I thought "isn't that was blogging is all about, having my thoughts seep out?"

On Friday, January 28  2011, "according to authorities, Julie Schenecker [50 years old] confessed to killing her children for repeatedly talking back to her and being 'mouthy.' "  Her children, [son, Beau, 13 and daughter, Calyx, 16] were shot as they both carried on with their daily routines on Thursday, January 27, 2011.  The details of their crime are horrendous, something I don't want to cover here, but the mother's motivation seems like a common occurrence.

How many parents/caregivers complain about mouthy kids?  How many times have you witnessed a public display of a teen talking back to an adult?  How many times have you yourself thought "that kid is really pushing my buttons?"  Adolescents are known to talk back, have strong opinions, test their boundaries, and question authority.  It is all part of being an adolescent who is on the journey to adulthood.

During adolescent brain development, the youth develops their thinking.  Five thinking areas have been identified: (1) reasoning / problem solving; (2) decision making / hypothetical situations; (3) processing information / efficiency. (4) expertise / use of experience; and (5) moral reasoning / social cognition.  All of these areas move the adolescent from concrete thinking, as during young childhood, to more complex, analytical thinking.  These areas need development so the adolescent becomes a thoughtful adult who is able to think beyond himself/herself and become a successful part of a community.

When I give a presentation I tell the audience a few things to keep in mind.  First, being able to reason and problem solve (not math) is all about the adolescent's ability to come up with options, logical planning, and finding the reason to do things.  Adults helping to build this sort of thinking need to guide the youth through a problem, not solve the problem for them.

Second, helping a youth with decision making skills is all about imagining hypothetical situations.  It is the basis of the "pro and con list" that is very often suggested.  Adolescents need to figure out what would happen if X happened versus what would happen if Y happened.  Adults need to remember to ask the question, "What do you think would have happened if X?" but then SHUT UP and let the kid answer it.  If you aren't getting an answer, then guided discussion is better than supplying the answer for them.

Third, their brains can only process certain level of information at one time.  This is clearly seen in the blank faces of adolescents when asked a question and there is no quick response.  Their brains are working on a response but can only do it so fast with the level of efficiency in their brains.  Give them time to process and respond and don't assume they are being difficult when they don't answer the question right away.

Fourth, their ages determine how many experiences they have.  A 12 year old only as 12 years of experience and you must remember that when assigning responsibilities.  Be realistic for the amount of and kind of experiences that make them "experts" in different areas.

Finally, social cognition involves not only moral reasoning but impression formation (i.e. meeting new people), perspective taking (putting yourself in somebody's else shoes), and social conventions (laws, rules, guidelines, etc.).  The toughest for adults to probably deal with is the understanding of social conventions.  Why are things a certain way?  Teenagers may say:  "Why do I have to be home at 11pm when my friends can stay out to midnight?", "Why do I have to go to church when I don't believe in God anymore?", "I think my bedroom is clean enough."  The problem is that adults think questioning of social conventions as being more argumentative and a direct question of their authority.  What I like to tell the audience is that the adolescent is not becoming more argumentative just better at it. 

Thinking development is a wonderful characteristic of adolescent brain development..  My use of the term "wonderful" may be a stretch for some of you in the heat of a stressful discussion with an adolescent, but having a kid talk back to me at least signifies that they were listening in the first place.

Obama Girls Don't Need Facebook

First Lady Michelle Obama was interviewed this morning on the Today Show.  Among the various questions Matt Lauer asked one included whether or not the Obama girls (Malia, 12 years old and Sasha, 9 years old) are on Facebook.  Mrs. Obama responded that they are not and they don't need to be.  The idea of do they NEED to be is such a refreshing look at the idea of social networking.  Do kids really need to be on the internet  talking to friends, making plans, joining groups, "dating," and spending time away from real life human interactions? 

Mrs. Obama seemed to say that her daughters don't need that type of social interaction at THEIR AGE.  [Facebook has a "rule" that no one under the age of 13 is allowed to have a Facebook account, but we know that rule is broken.]  Luckily, due to the Secret Service restrictions, Mrs. Obama and the President can avoid the discussion with their girls about what age would be appropriate. 

Research shows that techology is changing the structure and operations of the brain.  Again, I reference a great book by Gary Small and his wife Gigi Vorgan, "iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind."  This resource describes the brain areas affected and what that means for young brains as they develop.  Moreover, Small and Vorgan do a wonderful job in highlighting the differences between "Digital Native" brains - those younger generations growing up in a technological world - and "Digital Immigrants" brains - those older generations who have had to learn and train on much of the technological advances. 

One of the greatest findings in the book and also supported by other research is the fact that the younger the brain is exposed to large amounts of technology the greater the changes may be.  I believe that the "use it or lose is" principle of brain development is affected by three factors: (1) the time something was introduced: (2) what was introduced; and (3) how much is being introduced.

For example, research on the use of alcohol in young brains shows that there can be changes in the brain operations and structure.  The research talks about the younger the child begins to use alcohol and the amount of consumption (i.e. daily, weekly, one glass, 5 glasses, etc.) will affect the brain.  The adolescent brain continues to change and develop with a great period of development happening between the ages of 10 and 14.  If they are using alcohol during a time when the brain is especially focused on the "use it or lose it" principle than what they are losing are certain parts of the brain that are damaged by alcohol.

Technology use is based on the same logical argument.  Adolescents using multiple forms of  technology at younger ages and for long periods of time strengthen those areas of the brain they need to successfully navigate this technological world but are losing some of the other skills that are not needed when playing video games, texting, surfing the net, and communicating on Facebook. 

Some of the skills that my be lost are: (a) ability to read facial cues and other non-verbal signs; (b) understanding the concept of "personal space;" (c) the ability to empathize with people; (d) thinking in a deeper level of introspection or understanding; and (e) form a loving, intimate relationship with somebody they "like."  While skills may be lost, others are surely gained.  "Digital Native" brains can process information at a greater speed, are better at hand-eye coordination, improve perferial vision, and are exposed to a larger, global community full of different cultures, languages, and human relationships.

The point is knowing when it is AGE appropriate and BRAIN DEVELOPMENT appropriate for your kids to use technology, what forms of technology and how long they can use it. 

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Plasticity of the Brain can help Gabby Giffords

In a  great article written by David Brown of the Washington Post (Friday, January 21, 2011), he explains how victims of brain injuries have the capability to survive and thrive by the brain "healing" itself because of a characteristic known as neuroplasticity.

"The ability of the brain to compensate for damage by at least partly rewiring itself and assigning new tasks to undamaged regions is known as "neuroplasticity." It's one of the hottest topics in biology and an important one in medicine. Because of insights from functional magnetic resonance imaging and other technologies, scientists now realize that brain reorganization after injury is far more common and extensive than previously thought. They also know that neuroplasticity depends to a great degree on experience - which is to say, what the brain is forced to do in the critical weeks and months after it is injured."

Brown goes on to write:

"When an area with a specific function is destroyed, the brain first attempts to recruit nearby cells, which are often doing similar tasks, to change and perform the function of the destroyed cells.  If that's not possible, because the destroyed area is so large and the nearest surviving cells are, in fact, doing something completely unrelated, the analogous area on the other side of the brain - the opposite hemisphere - takes on some of the tasks, with varying success.
These two strategies - recruiting nearby tissue and recruiting the mirror-image area in the other hemisphere - have different success rates depending on what functions have been damaged by stroke or, in Giffords's case, by a projectile."  
The plasticity of the adolescent brain lends itself to great potential in growth and development.  During this time, the teen brain is strengthening it's communication pathways as the myelination process intensifies (the coating of the neuron's axons with a fatty substance known as myelin).  This process makes the brain more efficient in its messaging. Just like injured brains rewire their pathways, the adolescent brain is creating and rewiring their pathways through experiences. Thus, the experiences adolescents are participating in will impact how their brains become wired and how difficult it may be for their brains to rewire itself if it needs to change.  

Top 8 Research Items in the Field of Adolescent Brain Development.

Below is the list of the most exciting things I think researchers have discovered in the area of adolescent brain development.  I am hoping somebody will let me know if I missed anything.

1) The prefrontal [PFC] cortex is still developing.  The brain isn't complete just because the baby is born.  In fact, it is just the opposite.  Most of the brain still needs to develop after birth and well into many years to come.  Jay Geidd, along with other researchers, have discovered that adolescence, starting around 10-11 years old and ending in a person's mid-twenties, is the key time for the development of the PFC.

2) The brain's plasticity [or the ability of the neurons to receive and learn new messages] allows for the brain to keep learning.  I like to think of the brain's plasticity as linked to hope and potential, especially when I am working with groups that help at-risk youth.  I think every kid can be helped.  The trick, however, is finding out what will work, when it needs to be provided and who will do it.   It may be a long, tricky road ahead for a young damaged brain, but the right combination of the three makes all the difference in the world.

3) The amygdala and the limbic system are powerful influences on the adolescent.  The AMYGDALA, which is naturally larger in the male brain, is the center for strong emotional reactions.  The LIMBIC SYSTEM, which contains the amygdala, is a multi-component system in the center of the brain and is known as the emotional response system. These items "drive" the adolescent brain until the PFC can "get behind the wheel" and regulate the emotional response.

4) Myelination of the axons intensifies.  Axons are the communication "highways" between neurons in the brain.  A fatty substance known as myelin coats the axons to make them more efficient and durable. This process intensifies during adolescence helping the teen brain become a better operator.

5) Puberty is separate from adolescent brain development.  You can't blame everything on the hormones, even though they can be rowdy guests at the party.  The relationship between brain development and neurotransmitters [neurological system]  and puberty and hormones [endocrine system] is an interesting one when you take into consideration the purpose, need and timing of both.

6) There are three stages of adolescence (as defined by Lawrence Steinberg): early (10-13 years old); middle (14-17 years old); and late (18-21/25 years old).  Within each stage there are changes in the biological, cognitive, and social spheres.

7) There are gender similarities and gender differences in the brain.  Given that everything is "normal" and they are healthy brains, a few similarities between male and female brains are: (a) both develop from the back to the front; (b) both brains need water; (c) both can be damaged by the stress hormone, cortisol; and (d) both brains need "good" fats such as Omega 3 to help with the myelination process.  The differences are: (a) the male brain is typically larger than the female brain (but it doesn't mean they are smarter); (b) the female brain receives more blood flow to the front of the brain; (c) the male brain has a larger amygdala while the female brain has a larger hippocampus; and (d) the female brain uses both sides of the brain to process language while the male brain uses only one side.

8) The use of technology can have a profound impact on how the brain develops.  A book I highly recommend to everyone who wants to learn more about this is "iBrain: Surviving the technological alteration of the modern mind" by Gary Small and GiGi Vorgan. The younger generations' brains do not operate like the brains of older generations because the skills and tasks they are learning through the use of technology.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Me and My PFC {Prefrontal Cortex}

Ahh, the teen years.  Love'em?   Hate'em?  I wouldn't want to relive them.  People have heard me say that there would be no amount of money large enough that you could give me to go back to high school.  Don't get me wrong.  I have some wonderful memories of those years, but when the miserable, self-doubting, low self-esteem, social weirdo, troubled-soul memories creep in, they win out.  I can't imagine being the kid I was then in today's schools, cultures, and environments.  I wonder what would happen to me - what kind of an adult I would grow up to be.

The main job of "adolescence" for all teens is to figure out who they are and who they want to be.  These questions could be referring to the BIG questions like what is the meaning of life.  Or these questions could just refer to the present day dilemmas at school juggling friends, foes and things parents just don't understand.

As young children, boys and girls think in very concrete terms with much of their thoughts focusing on the here and now and what effects them. I call it the "3 foot circle." Picture a child standing in a circle that has a diameter of three feet.  Anything outside of the circle is not on her/his "radar" and does not matter unless somebody makes a point of bringing it to their attention -  into their circle.  In adolescence,  the circle widens, but the child is still the most important thing at the center.   The circle not only got larger, but for the first time in the child's life she/he is able to think in more complex terms and take other things (people, thoughts, opinions, options, etc.) into consideration.  This change comes as the PREFRONTAL CORTEX [PFC] develops, which may not be fully completed until a person's mid-twenties.

As noted in an earlier blog, the [PFC] has been known as the CEO of the brain because it is the control center for regulating thoughts and emotions.  It helps in planning, logical processing, controlling impulses, anticipating consequences, and balancing risks and rewards.  Some researchers believe that it is also the location of human conscience, regulating the ability to tell right from wrong.  All of these skills are part of cognitive development.

"Adolescence is a time for developing a new sense of self and identity along with the cognitive ability to imagine oneself in the future in ways that can create positive emotions (picturing oneself as highly successful) as well as linked to negative affective appraisals (imagining the consequences of failure or humiliation)...most importantly, many of these more complex-emotional experiences are happening for the first time in adolescence."   [Dahl, R. (2004).  Adolescent brain development: A period of vulnerabilities and opportunities.  Annals of New York Academy Sciences, 1021, p.21-22]

Interestingly there is a gender difference in the PFC.  In the female brain, the PFC is larger than the male's, receives more blood flow, and develops earlier than in the male brain.  Some researchers would say that the earlier the development of the PFC makes the child more mature or gives them the capability of higher level thinking than other children.  Moreover, with girls/women have larger PFCs that are replenished with more blood flow (and thus more oxygen) some would say that women tend to use this area more often and provides them with skills of being expert multi-taskers, super human planners, verbal problem solvers, and being (over-) analytical. 

Doesn't really matter who's is bigger, but what does matter is that each PFC is given the ability to develop and blossom the best it can.   Just like there are wonderful ways to nurture early brain development, there are certain things to help in the healthy development of the adolescent brain, specifically focusing on the PFC.  My top three ways are:
1) Brains need water, so put a bottle of water in front of the adolescent every chance you get.  Stick one in their closet, backpack, under their bed, next to their soda, by their computer, in their car.  They should always be thinking W A T E R to help them think and to help their changing bodies grow.
2) Brains need sleep.  The quick and dirty fact about teens and sleep is that they are probably not getting enough.  Their sleep cycle changes with puberty in so that they literally do not start feeling sleepy until later at night.  But with the need to get up early for school, their brains (and bodies) are not getting the rest they need.  Let the kid sleep in the car, take a short nap in the afternoon, sleep a couple of hours later on the weekend, or take "zone time" just to sit with eyes closed and do nothing.
3) Brains need diverse stimulation.  Again, the quick summary on this one is that the healthy development of a brain area is dependent on it getting used.  If the brain is bombarded with only one kind (or a few kinds) of stimulation (i.e. video games) then that is what they will become an expert at.  Now this is not all bad.  Any skilled professional from carpenters to pianists, sports stars to authors & actors, will tell you that practice is what made them good. But the more "well-rounded" the stimulation the better the brain will grow "all-around" and develop in healthy ways.  So give your kid some time on the video game, but then kick her outside to throw the ball around.  Tell him to put down his tuba and try a few dance steps.  Let them sing as long as it is followed with reading time. 

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Starting at the Beginning...Early Brain Development

Did you know that when babies are born their brains are not fully developed?  In fact the only part of the brain that is FULLY developed is the lower part of the brain or the brain stem.  This part of the brain is crucial for basic survival.  The key parts of the lower brain are the pons, cerebellum, and the medulla oblongata.  These areas regulate breathing, body temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure.  But interestingly enough, even though the brain is not fully developed, some regions contain all the neurons they will ever have.  Neurons are part of the communication highway and are key in learning new things.  Brain development has thus been defined as:

"In most regions of the brain, no new neurons are formed after birth.  Instead brain development consists of an ongoing process of wiring and re-wiring the connections among neurons.  New synapses between cells are constantly being formed, while others are broken or pruned away."  [Hawley, T. (2000).  Starting smart: How early experiences affect brain development.  Washington DC: Zero to Three, p. 2]

But what about genetics?

"It appears that genetics predispose us to develop in certain ways.  But our interactions with our environment have a significant impact on how our predispositions will be expressed; these interactions organize our brain's development and, therefore, shape the person we become."  [Shore 1997; as cited in Child Welfare Information Gateway (2001).  Understanding the effects of maltreatment on early brain development, p.2]

The debate between nature and nurture may not be a debate at all.  It is more of a partnership between the two than a competition.  This partnership helps define brain development as the young brain develops and learns new skills.

While the lower brain is fully developed, the young brain continues to develop in other very important areas.  The midbrain helps regulate sleep and appetite.  The limbic system is responsible for attachment, sexual behavior, and a range of emotions such as anger and pleasures.

If you can picture it, the brain develops from the back to the front of the head.  The area behind your forehead is known as the prefrontal cortex which is THEE key area that is most important during adolescence.  It is one of the last areas of the brain to fully develop - some estimate in a person's early to mid-twenties.

The prefrontal cortex has been called the "CEO" of the brain or the driver in an uncontrollable car who is responsible for bringing the car back on the right path.  This brain region helps in: logical processing; planning; controlling impulses; anticipating consequences; and balancing risks and rewards.  The prefrontal cortex is closely connected to the limbic system, the emotional system in the brain.  Some researchers also believe that the prefrontal cortex is the location of human conscience, regulating the ability to tell right from wrong.

Tomorrow's blog will explore the relationship between the prefrontal cortex and adolescence.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The BLOG is back

Hello All!
After a long brain blog break, I'm back and ready to write.  A great deal of things have been happening with our adolescents.  New research continues to be published.  Headlines continue to highlight the good, the bad and crazy adventures of today's teens.  Plus, I continue to think of new ways to bring the best practices for healthy adolescent brain development to every day living.  In sum, there is so much going on that I don't want to miss sharing any of it with you!

To kick off the year (even though January is half over),tomorrow I am going to start a short series on the basics of adolescent brain development.  It will provide a summary for those that need a refresher course or are new to the topic. 

In February, I will be starting a series regarding the brain on love.  What parts of the brain are kicking in when we feel love for someone we care about?  Where does the lust come from?  Do hormones have anything to do with love?  Why are adolescents so ga-ga about their first "relationship"?   What does healthy dating look like?

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