Mindsight: The Power To Be You

Hiren Kumar BOSE engages Dr Daniel J SIEGEL, PhD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and author of Brainstorm, in an e-mail tête-à-tête, on the power and purpose of the teenage brain.

HKB: What does brain science tell us about the teenage brain?

DJS: The teenage brain is undergoing a period of ‘remodelling’ which consists of both the pruning away of unused connections among neurons and the increasing connection among those that remain called ‘myelination.’ Remodelling can help us understand many of the changes in adolescence in new and empowering ways. The emotional spark, social engagement, novelty-seeking, and creative exploration of this period of time are results of the brain’s remodelling — not from what we erroneously thought were the causes of immaturity or ‘raging hormones.’

HKB: Tell us how can a parent form a deeper understanding to connect with a teenager?

DJS: When you understand yourself as a parent, as research shows, you are better able to offer your child or adolescent the kind of mental presence and attuned communication that supports their optimal development. Further, when you understand what is going on in the mind, brain, and relationships of your teen, you can better negotiate these challenging years and keep the channels of communication wide open. Such forms of understanding are available through new insights from science made into practical tools for parents.

HKB: The adolescent years have a direct impact on how we live the rest of our lives. How does one navigate these growing up years for good results?

DJS: It is best to see the essence of the adolescent period as having both downsides that can lead to destructive outcomes, and having upsides which can be optimised to make the development more constructive. The downside of emotional spark is moodiness and intense emotional outbursts; the upside is passion and vitality. The downside of social engagement is being vulnerable to peer pressure and giving up morality for membership in a group; the upside is that relationships are one of the most important aspects of mental and medical well-being. The downside of novelty-seeking is dangerous, risk-taking behaviour; the upside is curiosity and courage to try something new and explore the world. The downside of creative exploration is a feeling of disorientation and alienation with the natural push against the status quo; the upside is imagination that can help create innovation and be productive for society and personally rewarding. Optimising the upsides and minimising the downsides is a useful and effective strategy to make the most of the adolescent period.

HKB: Your term ‘mindsight’ describes the human capacity to perceive the mind of the self and of others. Please elaborate.

DJS: We have physical sight enabling us to see objects in the world with our eyes. And, we have mindsight enabling us to sense the mental world of self and others, something we use with many parts of our brain to achieve. When people don’t use mindsight, they treat others like objects without an internal sense of subjective reality — without meanings, feelings, memories. In contrast, a life lived with well-developed mindsight means that we can enrich our own lives with insight and with and understanding of others with empathy. And, when we respect differences and cultivate compassionate linkages, we also see that mindsight involves integration — the linkage of differentiated parts. With integration we cultivate well-being in our inner and interpersonal lives. 

HKB: You dispel the myth that the upheavals of adolescence are due to raging hormones and that the best strategy for adults and kids is to just get through it. How does a teenager get through it?

DJS: By understanding how the remodelling of the brain is occurring, adolescents — well into their twenties — can gain insights into this important period of life. And, when we see the power of the mind — including its focus of attention — to change the developing structural changes of the brain, empowerment is created. Adolescents can see how this new realisation that the challenges of adolescence are due to the remodelling of the brain and not simply to hormones raging out of control that you can do nothing to change helps them to see practical steps to improve their lives. One example is the learning of mindsight tools, a way to increase insight and empathy, along with integration in the brain and in relationships. Integration can be seen as the mechanism beneath well-being and, thus, mindsight helps promote a life of both understanding self and others as well as well-being.

HKB: Risks, and the rewards adolescents associate with taking risks, come from innate changes in brain development during this phase of life. The challenge is to support exploration while minimising the chances of harm. What strategy should a parent follow?

DJS: When adolescents and adults who care for them realise that raging hormones and immaturity are generally not the ‘root causes’ of risk-taking behaviour, many things can change. Instead, we see that the remodelling of the adolescent brain involves changes in regions associated with impulse control. These develop in the mid-teens, and so impulsivity may be understood to be an important source of risk-taking early in the adolescent period. But, risks continue even beyond this time, most likely due to something we did not know about earlier. These may be changes in the dopamine-based reward system of the brain. With essentially lower baseline levels of dopamine and higher release levels, an adolescent may experience the following ways of being that can be altered with awareness and mindful action. One is that there may be a sense of restlessness and boredom. That’s the lower baseline level.

The reward system is activated with novelty, and so trying something new, especially something with risk, can lead to a release of this rewarding neurotransmitter. And, since the release levels are higher, this means that the pull to do something risky may be [very] high given the increased levels released with that new and risky behaviour. Keeping this new view of risk taking in mind, an adolescent, and an adult, can help structure their lives to involve novelty and even structured risk, such as with sports and athletics that respect these drives, but also minimise permanent harm. Furthermore, having ‘right[s] of passage’ for both males and females, along with novel experiences with trustable non-parent adult figures, can support these changes as well.

The key issue is that each of these aspects of remodelling can be understood and that understanding can lead to effective ways of living the journey of adolescence to optimising the upsides of its essence while minimising the downsides. This is an exciting and productive time to bring science to life and support the growth of individuals in this period of life. And, for adults, too, it turns out that cultivating the essence is the best way to keeping our brains growing well across the lifespan.

HIREN KUMAR BOSE, a senior print and digital media communicator, has worked with leading English newspapers in India. He was till recently the Editor-in-Chief of a Mumbai-based media house that specialised in lifestyle-themed periodicals. Bose, who’s travelled widely on international assignments, over the last 35+ years, is presently an independent journalist. He contributes regularly to leading web portals and print journals. Apart from being the contributing editor of the Swiss luxury watch portal, WatchWorld, Bose is also a weekend farmer and active blogger. He manages the blog, Sunday Farmer, which has a devoted following among farming enthusiasts across the globe. This article is ©Hiren Kumar Bose.

[This article was first published September 12, 2021].

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