A fresh take on the teen brain

Sometimes it feels like a scary time to be a teenager. The internet can take any adolescent mistake and scatter it across a thousand screens. A nude picture, car accident, or an experiment with drugs survives forever online and be distributed Ad infinitum. At the same time, computers give teens easier access to others’ lives, as well as brutal violence and hard-core pornography. Today’s adolescents are both more exposed, and exposed to more, than possibly any other generation. And as frightening as being sixteen again may seem, it’s much more terrifying to imagine being the parent of a sixteen year-old.  

This is likely why Dr. Scott Swartzwelder, writing with Dr. Aaron White, decided to direct his latest book, What are They Thinking, towards parents. Many of the book’s subchapters are introduced by a real parent’s concern, “our daughter’s weight has crossed the line,” for example. These short paragraphs add often painful bursts of emotion to what is already a colourful and readable book.

In What are They Thinking, Swartzwelder and White set out to help parents by showing the neurological sources of many known and unknown adolescent traits. While they do provide some advice, such as suggesting parents still need to have “the talk” with their teens, the book’s primary focus is to give parents a scientific background in understanding their teen’s urges and actions.

To accomplish this goal, the authors divided What are They Thinking into nine chapters. The first, entitled “teens and their brains,” is the most scientifically heavy. There Swartzwelder and White introduce a number of important brain centres and hormones that are essential to understanding the later chapters. The frontal lobe, essential in controlling impulse, is incomplete during adolescence and a recurring character in the book. The reward system, which drives so many of teenagers’ actions, is also an important introduction.

The other eight chapters all look closely at one particular danger facing contemporary teens. Chapters that I expected to be very interesting, like the pages dedicated to proper sleep patterns, were surprisingly dry. The chapter discussing online pornography however, was fascinating and the authors’ points on violence in the media were almost disturbingly enlightening. In general, any chapters centred around online life were the most interesting, as that’s where their research was freshest. Other chapters seem outdated by comparison.

The book’s greatest issue is one of balance, and the writers often seem to be trying to write two books at once. One book is a practical guide for parents and the other gives any interested reader a glimpse into the inner working of an incomplete brain. For example, in the chapter entitled “Sleep,” one page introduces the various stages of sleep and describes their importance and the order in which they occur. Another explains how losing sleep can negatively affect a teen’s performance in school. Having different sections directed towards separate audiences will likely alienate many readers. A concerned parent reading that schizophrenia decreases the brain’s grey matter will likely think “but how does this help my daughter!” In other chapters, a childless reader simply interested in the science might find themselves muttering “yes, I know anorexia is unhealthy, can we move on?”

The advice sections of the book are further damaged by the fact that most of their information is not very new. One can easily find all of the authors’ tips for improving sleep with a quick Google search and at one point they even say that listening to loud music can damage your ears!

If What are They Thinking seems too dumbed down at some points, the simple language and clear explanations keep it from ever getting confusing. The authors make excellent use of analogies throughout. Calling frontal lobes “the captains of the ship” and adrenaline “the body’s caffine” help the reader rap get an idea of what these important components do.

Other analogies are less successful. Introducing the social media chapter, the authors say that the internet is a modern “Al’s Diner.” Although anyone raising a teenager might remember when Happy Days was on television, it can be a jarring reference to anyone younger. Even worse, they pack a second metaphor into the same sentence, calling the diner “a mythological Shangri La for American teenagers.” In order to explain one dated-reference, they’ve used a second allusion, this one from 1933.

Issues like odd analogies and poor advice sections wouldn’t be so much of a problem if they didn’t distract from the book’s real purpose, and it’s in the serious discussions of the teenage brain that What are They Thinking really shines. The authors use statistics and anecdotes brilliantly. For example, Swartzwelder and White describe how while working in Toronto, James Olds accidentally stimulated the wrong part of a rat’s brain during an experiment. The rat received a short jolt, and then began repeating exactly what it was doing when it was shocked the first time, associating the feeling with what it had been doing at the moment of the shock. Olds had discovered the brain’s reward centre.

It’s short episodes like this, and statistics like “more than half of American girls are dissatisfied with their bodies by age 13,” that make the book truly worth reading, and anything that gets in the way of that is a problem.

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