Wednesday, September 28, 2011


This week, I just happened to be reading, and very much enjoying, Alan Cumyn's new YA novel,  Tilt when the October issue of National Geographic arrived. The lead article about the teen brain, entitled "Beautiful Brains" by David Dobbs had to wait. I didn't want to put down the novel. When I finally read the article, I found it quite pertinent to the Cumyn's story.

Stan, the protagonist, is a sixteen year old who is in the throes of puberty, his conscious mind filled with provocative images of a girl named Janine Igwash (love the name . . definitely Canadian) and who is constantly surprised by the appearance of an embarrassing ridgepole in his pants. (I didn't know what a ridgepole was exactly, but didn't need to.) Cumyn has a funny and engaging prose style.

The idea that teen brains are different than adult brains was introduced in the novel by Stan's mother, as she tries, in her stumbling way, to give her son information about sex. After he admits he has never had sex, his mother says, "It's all right if you do. I mean, eventually, when you love someone, I mean, not now, but in the next few years you're going to be entering an age when the feelings are overpowering and . . . there's the whole thing about the adolescent brain. . . I was reading about this. The center for consequences is underdeveloped . . ."

Stan's mother is right. Underdeveloped does describe the brain at age sixteen. What Dobbs' new article adds to this science, however, is that for teens, this underdevelopment is actually adaptive, in other words, a good thing for the species. A teen is, as we already know, less concerned with consequences of his behavior and tuned into new and exciting things, the thrill. (Think James Dean and racing cars.) As NIH researcher Jay Giedd puts it "the hunt for sensation provides the inspiration needed to '"get you out of the house"' and into new terrain."

Not being frightened so much about consequences makes teens bold enough to create a place of their own in the world.  Of course, if consequences aren't considered at all, problems such as unwanted pregnancy, car wrecks and addiction can result, the things that keep parents up at night. The teen years will always be a risky time.

But interestingly, in the novel Tilt it seems that Stan's dysfunctional dad, who deserted the family five years before after he impregnated a twenty three year-old and who can't keep a job, also seems to have a teen brain. It's thrill over consequences for Dad and he has lost his family. One can see how seeking the new and and ignoring consequences might be advantageous for a teen like Stan who is growing up. One can also see how it might disastrous for a an adult.

Thus, as the "myelinization" of nerve fibers over time matures teen brains, it's complicated, and none of us are the same in the end, as reflected in real life and in the characters in fine novels like Tilt.

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