Saturday, May 5, 2012

How Books about the Teen Brain Fall Short

I've been writing about the teen brain for several years now, and I'm currently gathering the most important insights into a book for parents. I'm doing this knowing that during the past eight to ten years dozens of articles and about ten books about the teen brain have already been published. Why not just refer readers to the best of these works? Why another book about the teen brain?

The reason is that while all these articles and books report the research findings, they fail to get to the heart of the matter. Some of them communicate well to parents, but they get the science wrong. Some of them get the science right, but they don't communicate well to parents or tell them what they need to know. There are several hugely important insights and recommendations that parents of teens desperately need, and they aren't coming through in these books.

A good example is an excellent book I read recently, Welcome to Your Child's Brain: How the Mind Grows from Conception to College (Bloomsbury, 2011), by Sandra Aamodt, Ph.D., and Sam Wang, Ph.D.

Parents will be engaged by the title. They need to know about their child's brain, because there are sensitive windows of development with outcomes that last a lifetime. There are certain things parents need to do and not do at certain times, and they need to know what these actions are.

One thing I appreciate about this book is that it's thorough and responsible. It gets the science right. Better than any book I've read, it makes the point that there are specific developmental stages. The authors have studied and worked in neuroscience for years, and the science they cite is up-to-date. I'm an avid reader of books like this, and I loved the extensive glossary, the hundreds of notes and scientific references, and the detailed index. I enjoyed this book far more than the pop science treatments of the teen brain that get some of the science wrong.

But all this rigor becomes a problem. It's as if the authors wanted to write a book for parents, and they ended up writing a book for other scholars and scientists. For example, the development of the prefrontal cortex happens during adolescence and is hugely important to the development of the basic structure of a child's intellect. Here's what the authors have to say about it:

"One sign that adolescent brains are becoming more efficient is that activity is better coordinated between distant brain areas. This improvement is seen in signals varying together (coherency) and traveling over distances more quickly. White matter is only 85 per cent of adult size and continues to grow even into the forties. As white matter grows, axonal fibers are likely to be widening, and fatter axons transmit signals at higher speeds. Because white-matter axons mediate communication between distant brain regions, this change is likely to have strong functional implications - though at present we don't know what they are."

And: "In a longitudinal study of children, the pattern of developmental changes in cortical thickness predicted intelligence more strongly than did the adult configuration at age twenty. Dendritic branching in neurons was also correlated with intelligence in a few studies."

This is a technically responsible way to describe the research. But what does this mean to a typical parent? I've been studying brain science for over 25 years and I found the description challenging. If you say important things to parents in a way that makes it hard for them to understand, you confuse them.

The problem is while the authors know their business, they've been writing about these topics professionally for scientific peer review for more than a decade, and this is how they're used to writing about them. But this kind of writing doesn't communicate to parents. There are some important points to be made, but what parents need to know is mostly buried in this kind of review of research.

I think very few parents will be able to wade through all this technical description. But if they do they'll be convinced that there are stages of brain development that are important to the successful growing up of their child. But aside from being aware of the stages, what should they do as parents? There's not much of this in the book, and what's here is hard to find among the 300 pages of responsible scientific journalism.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2012. Building Personal Strength .

1 comment:

Michael Y. Simon, LMFT said...

Dear Dr. Coates,

I really liked--an largely agreed with--your blog post on what books on the teen brain get wrong. And I think your questions are exactly the right ones: why not just refer people to other good books, and why have another book that fails to get at the heart of the matter. However, I think there is a book that doesn't actually fail, and manages to get both aspects "right"--the neuroscience and the translation for parents of teens. You also probably wouldn't be surprised if I told you I'm the author and the book will be out July 1st.
The Approximate Parent: Discovering the Strategies That Work for Your Teenager (ISBN 978-0-9852276-9-2, Fine Optics Press, 2012) is a book rooted in the most up-to-date research on adolescent brain development, neurology and epigenetics, but I believe its real strength is that it explains throughout the entire book just how knowledge about brain development is crucial for understanding your particular teenager. This is actually where almost every book about teenagers for parents, educators and mental health professionals falls short. In my view it's not really a question of whether the book completely gets the science right or completely makes the content friendly and practical for parents. It's about whether the book takes a view that all teenagers are somehow the same and can be approached with "one" or "the best" parenting approach. While there are outstanding books released in the last 20 years about adolescents, almost all of them assume that "teenagers" can somehow be approached in the same way. With any luck, this book will put an end to that view and help everyone working with and supporting adolescents be better at "approximating" the best strategies for the specific teenagers in their world--not a generic teenager. If there is one thing that the last 15 years of neuroimaging have shown the world, it's that despite basic underlying structural and functional similarities between adolescents (and all humans) there are enormous, powerful differences from person to person...and those differences only multiple when we realize how much genetics in combination with environmental factors are continually changing just "who" shows up in the home of each parent of a teen...from month to month and year to year.

Michael Y. Simon, LMFT
Author, The Approximate Parent