… and made peace with the limitations of my brain.

The Insane Asylum of the Universe

The German playwright, Goethe called Planet Earth the insane asylum of the universe. From time to time I find myself agreeing with Goethe, especially when I look at recent events going on in Washington or on Wall Street. But I don’t really have to even look all the way across the country … I can simply look in my morning mirror.

I didn’t know it then, but one of the factors contributing to my loose grip on reality during my teen years – my nickname was “Crazyman” – was the slow, unbalanced manner in which my brain was developing, absent very little adult supervision. That imbalance produced a brain that periodically drove me – as it does many teens – to excessive risk-taking. So, as a creative, “precocious” teenager, I poisoned my friends with homebrewed whiskey (inadvertently contaminated with rat feces); in order to become the community spirits supplier, I studied locksmithing so I could pick the padlocks on three neighborhood liquor warehouses after hours; I snuck cherry bombs inside match boxes into my friends’ gym bags; and shortly before I accidently drove it off a cliff in Latigo Canyon in Malibu, I frequently raced my Triumph Bonneville motorcycle down the Hollywood Freeway at 100 miles an hour resulting in suspension by the DMV (This was in the mid-1960s when there were still hours in the day when you could actually speed on the LA freeways). True to the research, most of these thoughtless acts were done under the cover of darkness.

Living Within Limits

It wasn’t that I was a sociopath or possessed of a Death Wish. My legal defense would be that I was simply experimenting with limits in order to learn to live within them. And, if you believe the research of Abigail Baird at Vassar, I did these things because even though my left teenaged brain could think abstractly, it couldn’t feel abstractly – there was simply insufficient bilateral neural integration to support both feeling and thinking. Turns out we learn to feel by doing, and in the process discover how what we do actually makes us feel. (By the way, although he doesn’t realize it, Scott Patterson makes a compelling case for insufficient bilateral integration on Wall Street in his recently published book, The Quants).

Another problem with my teen brain was that in addition to its imbalance, it was also undergoing other significant growth – the expansion and connection of gray matter modules by white matter (myelin). Myelin turbo-charges neural transmission, a process that isn’t optimized until around age 25. And the last areas to undergo myelinization are connections to the frontal lobes, those areas responsible for optimal executive function. One element of executive function is decision-making and the ability to think before we act. Without that prefrontal growth and connectivity, impulses are very challenging to control, resulting in teens being involved in twice the fatal car crashes as the rest of us in America.

Keeping It Real

Myelin growth is primarily driven by real life experience. The operating word being real. Turns out a growing number of life experiences today’s teens are having are not real and neural integration suffers as a result. One “non-real” experience involves the increasing amounts of screen time teens spend on computers, TVs, cell phones, Apple’s  iTablet, etc. According to New Zealand researcher Rose Richards, increased time spent with digital devices seems to be negatively correlated with positive emotional intelligence and strong social bonding. Low social and emotional IQs are not good. It makes it tough emotionally control ourselves and to work through inevitable relationship difficulties without totally freaking.

So that’s a partial picture of the downside of the teenage brain. To my great surprise however – and to many parents as well, I imagine – my teen rebellion years weren’t normal in the least. Research by Nancy Darling at Penn State and Laurence Steinberg at Temple University suggests that a trauma-drama adolescence is the exception not the rule – 75% of teens sampled in a variety of schools describe positive and productive relationships with family and friends. Across the nation, the number of teens taking advanced math and science is up 20%; 70% of college freshmen volunteer for community service weekly (70%!); almost 50% have participated in organized demonstrations (Some, as recently as this week!). These findings closely correspond with Emory University neuroscientist Greg Berns’s findings that many modern-day teenaged brains actually end up maturing quite early. Who would have guessed that contrary to my early experience, there is a strong possibility that going forward, Goethe might turn out to be 180 degrees wrong?