Monday, October 20, 2008

The Primal Teen

Review: Janet Spring
Strauch, Barbara. (2003). The Primal Teen: What the New Discoveries about the Teenage Brain Tell Us About Our Kids, New York: Anchor Books.

This resource is an informative text dealing with issues that parents and educators face each day when raising, teaching and interacting with the adolescent child. Although written for the layperson, the text offers insight for those interested in the brain of the teenager through interviews with neuroscientists, parents, educators and physicians. The author, Barbara Strauch is the health and science editor of the New York Times and begins her dialogue on the premise that the teenage brain has always been considered to be fully developed at adolescence. However, many studies completed in the last decade have pointed toward the adolescent brain still as a ‘work in progress’. Strauch therefore highlights these new findings in her discussions and interviews in an easy to follow and smooth flowing informative style.

In fourteen chapters, the author introduces the teenage brain as “Crazy by Design”, highlighting the new and recent discoveries of the brain, followed by information assessing the behaviour of children at this stage, their hormonal changes, mental health issues, developmental neurobiological theories as well as a chapter on “When things go wrong”. The author concludes with a section on new pathways that may lead the adolescent to a successful maturation into adulthood. Bibliographic references are included, listing the wide variety of sources cited.

In the beginning chapters, Strauch often refers to the teenage brain as being “under construction” (p. 15), where the brain’s grey matter, or outer layer, is changing in thickness. As a child approaches adolescence from the age of eight onward, his or her brain is experiencing a change in “the tiny branches of brain cells [that are] blooming madly, a process neuroscientists refer to as over-production, or exuberance” (p. 15). Strauch also refers to Giedd et al, (1999) who completed a longitudinal MRI study on the adolescent brain, finding that the adolescent brain once thought to be mature by this stage in life, is still in a state of growth. The frontal lobes seem to peak in volume at age eleven in girls, and twelve in boys then “does an about-face and starts a steep trek back down” (p. 16), then continues to grow or “specialize” (p. 16). Due to this reconfiguration, Giedd and others remark that “Adolescence …. may be one of the worst times to expose a brain to drugs and alcohol or even a steady dose of violent video games” (p. 21).

Strauch labels adolescence as the “age of impulse” as she discusses the development of the prefrontal cortex, which is the area that “controls working memory, inhibition, impulse control” and “over the course of evolutionary history has increased a whopping 29%” (p. 27). As a child reaches adolescence, Giedd comments that their prefrontal cortex is progressing, yet cannot assist them to make the right decisions due to lack of full development. It is therefore up to the parent, caregiver, and educator to act as the adolescent’s prefrontal cortex to warn the child of the dangers that exist when one is acting on impulse or who becomes withdrawn and distant. Guiding them through the consequences of a potential poor decision or action will remind the teenager of his or her growing responsibilities toward adulthood.

Plasticity or the brain’s “ability to adapt to change” is a topic that is discussed in the Chapter Altered States. The brain according to Greenough (1987) is an adaptable power that can expand with frequency of practice and experience. He discusses results of his study where violinists who are consistently devoted to their music studies as they practice technique have larger brain measurements in the cortex area than non violinists. Their brains have positively adapted to frequency of application of a particular skill. On the other hand, the study of Chugani (2001) which researched brain functions in deprived Romanian orphans, found that their brains suffered from metabolic inaction in “parts of the inner brain limbic area linked to recognition of faces and emotions, two crucial components of bonding and attachment” (p. 42). However, Nelson (2000) remarks that, “we know experience matters, but we just don’t know what nature of experience matters, what’s best for the brain” (p. 42). Therefore parents and educators must continue to influence teenagers with lectures, words of wisdom, love, nurturing and general everyday guidance.

Another area of the brain that continues to develop throughout adolescence is the cerebellum, which is “the last structure … to develop” (p. 43). This area of the brain acts as the social network according to Giedd who suggests that the teenager perhaps may need more time to ‘play’ instead of working night after night on endless homework assignments. As the brain is still in a state of growth, it is considered a very critical time where it may need a time to discover through play, and where the brain circuitry in many areas is also affected by hormone growth as well as simple expansion and fine tuning. No wonder the adolescent is considered being in a “muddle” (p. 47) with this continued growth, on top of being bombarded with hormones. Strauch quotes Giedd who remarks, “Hormones may be intricately involved not only in the sexy shenanigans we blame them for, but also in sculpting the basic architecture of a teenage brain” (p. 126). However, growth tends to be “an elaborate feedback loop, [where] hormones make behaviour, but behaviour also makes hormones” (p. 128).

Estrogens and androgens increase in great amounts in both teenage boys and girls, where estrogen “increases anywhere from 650 to 4,900 % during a month, reaching its peak around ovulation” in girls and “testosterone fluctuates during the day as much as 150 %” (p. 128) in boys. The effect of these hormones on the brain has confused researchers today, for they have found “receptors for estrogens and androgens sprinkled all over the human brain, in the cortex and the cerebellum, two areas associated with movement and cognition; in the amygdale, linked to strong, gut emotions; and the hippocampus, an area important to memory” (p. 130). Further research must therefore be completed to probe the adolescent brain for more answers that will shed some light on the teenage brain, emotions, problems that they face, and how to deal with this young adult who is constantly in a state of emotional and physical flux!

Strauch concludes her discussion by warning parents, educators and teenagers themselves that the adolescent is experiencing “cerebral transformations [that] are crucial to the development of a normal, average teenager” (p. 204). She warns that research points to the fact that we must all be cognizant of these developmental changes and adjust our expectations. Strauch also quotes Oliver Sacks who remarks that, the teenage years that are full of turbulence is a worldwide stage of life, where “other cultures all recognize adolescence universally” (p. 218). It is a time of evolution where the brain is adjusting and growing and should not only be “endured, but indulged, even celebrated” (p. 218)!


The study of music is a pursuit that is demanding, taxing, stressful, yet rewarding, exciting and fulfilling. To be successful, a student must be dedicated, demonstrate perseverance, musical ability and must have obtainable goals and direction. How can the adolescent then pursue his or her studies in music with the greatest success and stay on task with the many trials and tribulations encountered during this stage of development? The adolescent brain is undergoing so many changes and continued growth while being bombarded with hormones, new adult expectations, peer pressure, romantic notions, without even thinking of other problems that might be encountered, such as alcohol consumption and drug abuse. It would seem that adolescence would then be a difficult stage to begin the study of music! Perhaps in all fairness, music studies should begin much earlier, so that the young musician is already on a pathway to success and has developed good study and practice habits before brain remodeling takes place at so many different levels!


Chugani, H. et al. (2001). Local brain functional activity following early deprivation: a study of post institutionalized Romanian orphans, Neuroimage, Academic Press.

Giedd, J.N., Blumenthal, J., Jeffries, N. (1999). Brain development during childhood and adolescence: a longitudinal MRI study, Nature Neuroscience, 2 (10): 861 – 863.

Greenough, W., Black, J., Wallace, C. (1987). Experience and brain development, Child Development, 58 (3): 539 – 559.

Nelson, C. (2000). Neural plasticity and human development: the role of early experience in sculpting memory systems, Developmental Science 3 (2): 115- 136.

Strauch, Barbara. (2003). The Primal Teen: What the New Discoveries about the Teenage Brain Tell Us About Our Kids, New York: Anchor Books.

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