Dr. Terrence Deak: The Adolescent Brain

Dec 10, 2013 by

51ykgzHvHHL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Michael F. Shaughnessy

Dr. JoAnn Deak, Ph.D. and Dr. Terrence Deak, Ph.D. have just written a book on “ The Owner’s Manual for Driving Your Adolescent Brain. The book, illustrated by Freya Harrison is an interesting overview of the parts of the brain, and a fascinating overview of the workings of the brain. In this interview, Dr. Terrence Deak responds to questions about the book.

  1. First of all, can you tell us about yourselves- your education, experience etc

JoAnn Deak, Ph.D. has spent more than thirty years as an educator and psychologist helping children develop into confident and competent adults. For the last fifteen years, she has helped adults, parents, and teachers understand and appreciate their role in childhood brain development. Today, Dr. JoAnn Deak consults with organizations and schools throughout the world.

Terrence Deak, Ph.D. joined the faculty at Binghamton University in 2001, where he teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses in psychology and neuroscience. His laboratory research focuses on stress responsive systems and neural-immune interactions across the lifespan, with an emerging emphasis on alcohol effects on brain development, and has been funded through the National Institute of Health, National Science Foundation, and several private foundations over the past decade.

  1. Now, what led you to write a book about the Adolescent Brain?

After JoAnn published Your Fantastic Elastic Brain – a delightful and empowering book about the brain for younger kids aged 5-9 years old, this project evolved organically as a means to engage kids in an even deeper, more meaningful conversation about their brain and some changes they can expect during adolescence. Instead of simply delivering factual information about the brain, our approach was to use language and examples that would make emerging adolescents feel like partners in their own brain development.

  1. What specific grades or age range is this for?

Though we targeted 9-14 years olds as the primary readership, we have had very enthusiastic feedback from the adults who have read it as well, and in particular from educators and librarians. It seems that the people on the front lines of working with adolescents—the teachers, principals and support staff in our schools—are walking away from it with a fresh perspective on the internal workings of the brain and adolescence, and perhaps some new insight into reaching this notoriously “inaccessible” age group.

  1. Many adolescents abuse drugs and alcohol and pot. Does your book indicate the potential risks and damage that could be caused?

Great question—and to be totally honest, this is an issue we wrestled with during preparation of the text quite a bit. There is no doubt that the issue needs to be addressed with kids this age, as a substantial portion of kids have consumed their first alcohol drink by the age of 13. That’s an 8th grader! This is problematic not just because an earlier age of drug consumption is correlated with greater prevalence of alcohol abuse later in life, but also due to the deleterious effects it can have on the developing brain. So, the real issue for us was how to incorporate this information into a text that was otherwise empowering and uplifting, without becoming overly “preachy” about it. The answer turned out be quite simple: we provided a brief discussion of brain pathways activated by alcohol and other drugs of abuse, indicated some of the potential problems that can occur, and closed the section with a somewhat leading question of “What will you choose?” instead of wagging our fingers at them and saying “Don’t do that.”

  1. I was happy to see that the illustrated baseball players were all wearing helmets. Does your book discuss the need for teenagers to protect their heads and brains?

For us, this fell into a similar category as drugs and alcohol, which are other threats to healthy brain function. Thus, we have a section that talks about protecting their developing brain through healthy decision making.

  1. Now, what about learning- why is it that some adolescent have difficulty, say learning algebra?

I think it is fair to say that MOST adolescents have difficulty with algebra and advanced mathematics. And of course, every kid has a different aptitude for learning in specific subjects—we see kids who excel at math, but cant write a paragraph. Other kids can write in eloquent prose, but still have not mastered simple multiplication tables they should have learned years earlier. Algebra- and other aspects of math that adolescents learn in school, all the way through calculus—requires more abstract reasoning skills than the concrete operations they learned in their earlier years. To perform those abstract operations, their brains need to achieve a certain state of development, and “exercising” those abstract reasoning centers in their brain through regular practice can help those centers become stronger.

  1. Let’s talk SLEEP…..I have heard many different opinions- that adolescents need more sleep than children- True or False?

As kids move into the adolescent period, they begin staying up much later and there is a natural shift in their circadian rhythms that occurs. Adolescence is also a period of rapid growth and maturation of many physiological systems—especially the brain—and so yes, healthy sleep patterns are essential. But do they sleep more than younger kids? I don’t think so—if you look at sleep charts across the lifespan, they sleep less, on average, than infants or the elderly. However, due to their natural transition during adolescence to adult-like sleep patterns, they are more likely to accrue a “sleep debt” that makes them difficult to rouse in the morning.

  1. What about late night studying- is “ cramming “ effective for tests?

Sure—cramming will get you through the test, but it is truly not the best strategy for learning. 75 years of the study of learning by psychologists has upheld the simple principle of distributed practice: time spent engaging new material or new skills produces the best learning outcomes (better understanding, longer retention) when the practice is distributed over a longer period of time rather than “massed” into a cramming session.

  1. Music—does exposure to music or learning to play an instrument help the growing brain?

Absolutely! We talk extensively about music learning as a form of brain enrichment throughout the book. Most brain structures have numerous roles and can so strengthening brain pathways activated by rich musical tones, for instance, can help with language acquisition and development. Similarly, the complex time signatures in music translate indirectly to an understanding of fractions in mathematics. Overall, playing a musical instrument involves coordination of fine motor movement, autonomous reading and symbol decoding within a context of rhythm. In terms of challenging your brain, it does not get much better than that!

  1. Attention Deficit Disorder—what is wrong in the brain that interferes with adolescents trying to pay attention, learn, focus etc?

ADHD is a complex problem, but it is not an intrinsic problem for all adolescents, nor is it a disorder that is unique to the adolescent period. For these reasons, we did not cover this topic in our book. However, there is a wealth of resources available about ADHD.

  1. Diet and the Brain- Do adolescents need to be careful about what they eat?

I’m not sure “careful” is the right word here because one can certainly be overly careful or restrictive in their diets and have that be detrimental as well. But in general, everyone needs to be cognizant about diet, including adolescents. As any parent knows, adolescents tend to eat large quantities of food because they have energetic needs that go beyond just their daily energy utilization—they’re still growing, and often at very high rates. So yes, incorporating healthy foods and consumption patterns will ensure the brain has everything it needs to develop properly, and hopefully engrain a pattern of healthy eating for life.

  1. There has been a lot of discussion about concussion. Can you provide some insight or overview?

Concussions are bad because they damage your brain. Damaging the brain during early development can be particularly bad because they can prevent the acquisition of skills and abilities that have not yet been engendered. Although we touch on this briefly, damage, disease and disorders were really not a central part of the theme of our book.

  1. Your book says “ Struggle Makes You Stronger “. Are you saying that kids that do not like math should be forced to take algebra, geometry and Trigonometry?

Well, there is a balance to this. The educational goals for adolescents are defined by the States and educators. The point we make in our book about Struggle making you Stronger is really a statement of empowerment for kids that says this: almost anything that is worth learning—music, math, riding a bike, establishing a new circle of friends—will have elements of discomfort, lots of frustration, and sometimes even a little pain. But these challenges are a natural part of life and working through them will supply them with excellent tools (coping, confidence, resilience… plus whatever they have learned) that will be applicable for the rest of their lives.

  1. Where can interested readers get more information?

There are many great books on brain development, but the challenge will be to find a book or series of books that is written at the right level for your understanding of the brain. We hope The Owner’s Manual will help our readers open doors to deeper texts down the road. Although the internet is an obvious wealth of information, it can be difficult to determine the credibility of that information from a scientific standpoint.

  1. Who has done the wonderful illustrations for the book?

We are grateful to Freya Harrison for bringing the text to life.

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