The Brilliance of the Teen Brain (#216)

I feel old. Yes, I did just have a birthday. No, I’m not going to tell you which one.

My knees started making noises. The orthopedist assured me that I’m young for creaky knees; it’s probably an unfortunate combination of too much dancing and volleyball. I feel decrepit anyway.

Even so, it’s not my knees that made me realize I’m old.

It’s my brain. My brain feels ancient. It’s also wiser, sure, which is helpful when it comes to spotting the free riders and over promisers of the world. It’s able to envision worst case scenarios and avoid potential pitfalls, thanks to years of experience.

My old brain has perspective now, too. The old brain recognizes that even the worst misery is temporary, and tomorrow the pain won’t be so bad (or maybe if I just eat something, a situation won’t feel as hopeless).

But you know what my old brain has recently been pining for?


I know, I know. Totally fucked up. I mean, think back on the hideous days of acne, friend dramas, and romance rollercoasters. Whom among us would want to return to the tyranny of SAT scores, strict parents, sarcastic teachers, or the snide commentary of mean peers?

No one, of course.

Yet I yearn for my adolescent brain.


Daniel J. Siegel is a child psychiatrist who wrote a book about the adolescent brain half a decade ago, as his own children went through their teen years. It’s called Brainstorm, and it explains the scientific reasons for certain behaviors. Remember how you felt immortal as a teen and maybe did something risky like not wear a seatbelt or jump off cliff?

According to Siegel, “There is an increase in the activity of the neural circuits utilizing dopamine, a neurotransmitter central in creating our drive for reward… It can also lead them to focus solely on the positive rewards they are sure are in store for them, while failing to notice or give value to the potential risks and downsides.” In short, teens are optimistic about success.

The teen brain also rebels. It rejects parents and the status quo, hunting for new, novel ways of doing everything and anything.

One of the biggest drivers of an adolescent brain is a need for peer connection. When surrounded by friends, adolescents will engage in more novelty-seeking behavior and be more likely to discount the risks.

Living by a middle school, I watch this progression daily. The sixth graders are easily spotted, timidly scurrying by my house to get to school on time, often alone. The seventh graders will dawdle a little longer, laugh louder, and travel in packs. By the end of eighth grade, full-on adolescents skateboard down my steps and post their spectacular crashes on Snapchat. Or YouTube. Or Twitch. Or whatever new social media platform arrives tomorrow.

And the high schoolers in my neighborhood? They’ve used my house as target practice for their air rifles. They’ve tried to use my front yard as their personal port-a-potty at midnight. They even built a “campfire” on the roof of the school. A year or two ago, I decided that the collective noun for a large group of adolescents should be “a stupid.”

But now? I think maybe I’m the stupid one.

Because a group of teens from a bullet-riddled high school in Parkland, Florida now leads a massive movement that might change the American political landscape forever.


After the Sandy Hook school shooting 6 years ago, adults, legislators, and even the President tried to shake the NRA’s hold on the Republicans and pass national gun reform legislation. They failed.

There were more shootings. Mass shootings, school shootings, police shootings, domestic violence shootings. Over 7,000 children have died from gun violence since Newtown.

Women marched and the shootings continued.

The Republicans took control of all three branches of government. The shootings continued.

We despaired, even as we supported women candidates and cheered whenever a GOP candidate was defeated. Because even progressive adults, with our old brains, steeped in perspective and realism, didn’t really believe we could change anything. As Dan Hodges said on Twitter:

Then, out of yet another horrific massacre, hope arrived. Born in the battered, yet somehow still optimistic teen brains of students like Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, and Cameron Kasky. They challenged the status quo, telling GOP legislators to shove their thoughts and prayers up their collective assholes. They called bullshit on all the so-called reasons for not enacting gun reform. They supported each other, drew strength from each other, and took on both American disillusionment and the NRA.

They created a movement. They implored adults to run against the pro-gun lobby and spearheaded voter registration. And when they marched on D.C., they brought along their peers of color who’d been fighting against gun violence already. They gave their friends microphones, but refused to let the elected officials speak.

And rightly so. I read editorials and blog posts daily that eagerly point out the failings of the Women’s March, Black Lives Matter, and #MeToo. The culture can’t be changed, authors insist. The activists are flawed, or their messaging is flawed, or they’re being used by career politicians.

As if it’s better to sit smugly on your ass and be critical than to go to a meeting. Or a march. Or canvas voters. Or make a donation. Or just TRY.

Screw that, my fellow old brains. It’s time to jettison our realistic (or maybe our real jaded) neural pathways and resurrect the rebellious ones of our youth.

If my brain can’t manage that, well, I’m gonna limp along behind those teenagers as best I can on my creaky knees, supporting and admiring them.

You know what my newest collective noun is?

A brilliance of teenaged brains.

Illustration from Brainstorm, by Daniel J. Siegel

Published by

Autumn Ashbough

WF writing about the humorous perils of life with Chinese-American significant other.

14 thoughts on “The Brilliance of the Teen Brain (#216)”

  1. Excellent post. I was very discouraged after Sandy Hook. They were babies really. I was getting jaded because nothing was sticking. Then these kids came out of nowhere. Young kids. Kids without trust funds backing them up. I loved when the young girl threw up while speaking. It was very important to her and us. I marched in the 60s. It was awful, exhilarating, chaotic and there was some movement. However that damn pendulum swung back as my generation raised a group of protected kids and here we are again. I need some dopamine. Do I need a prescription for that? Never mind, I probably can’t afford it with the health care but that’s another topic altogether. Love this.

    1. Thanks, Kate! Yeah, after the rebellion of the sixties and seventies came the conservative kids of the eighties and nineties — rebelling against rebellion by not rebelling, I guess? Now we’re swinging back again and let’s hope we go even further this time. A little puke won’t stop these kids, hell no. Onto the midterms!

      So gutted by Sandy Hook. You’re right, they were just babies. And they should be teens today.

  2. Totally your cheerleader on this post. I have mad respect for those kids. It takes a lot of guts to not only march on Washington, but to speak to a crowd like that with such emotion and ferocity… it’s compelling.

    I’m also sad that adults can’t protect our kids in the USA. Kids have to march out and do it themselves.

    I really hope this is the change that goes down in the history books. It would probably be the greatest achievement in us history in my lifetime.

    1. I know, it’s hard not to be an adult paralyzed by our shame and failure when it comes to gun control. We didn’t do right by our kids at all. But now I feel like we’ve got a chance. Those teens have galvanized the nation, seizing the moral high ground and battering the gun lobby with it. I watch them battle on social media and I’m their cheerleader, even as I sniffle and worry about the inevitable PTSD.

      Many of those teens are theater kids in AP Government. This is why liberal and performing arts are so important.

      1. Yup. We should never give up the arts in school. They’re so essential. With the rise of the tech industry and hard skills, I sometimes worry that these so-called “soft skills” will get cut out of school.

  3. Thank you for writing this. My poor, tired brain and my poor, tired feet will also limp along behind these blazing teenaged comets if I can’t keep up.

  4. These days kids and adolescents have brains…and enthusiasm and a knack for being simply smart. If you want something, stand up for it, go get it and make a change, and someone will take notice eventually.

    1. They always had brains. Adults just didn’t always recognize it. And the great thing about their brains is they haven’t been beaten down by experience. They really think they can win — and they just might.

  5. I loved this post.

    My nephew (who is almost 40) has been working on gun control for the past year or so, posting almost every day about it, calling his congress people, never seeming to lose heart. I half-heartedly supported his cause, thinking it was a lost cause. But now the teenagers from FL have given me hope again. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Trump it’s that marketing matters, and these kids sure know how to spread the word. I just hope they keep it up.

    1. Thanks so much, Nicki! I know, I’ve been half-assed, too. But now I’m gonna be full-assed. It’s really heartening to see so many women running for office and not giving up, which is what I worried about after the Women’s March. Maybe we’ve finally realized what’s at stake and that we’re fighting for our lives.

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