Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Teenage Brain +Dementia of the Preoccupied

I listened to a great podcast last week on NPR's Fresh Air. Terry Gross, the host, interviewed neurologist Dr. Frances Jensen, author of the recently published book The Teenage Brain.  The podcast was entitled, Why Teens Are Impulsive, Addiction-Prone And Should Protect Their Brains.  As both an educator and parent, I found the interview fascinating and enlightening, and would encourage you to listen to it or read the transcript.  Her insight and findings about "learning and multitasking, stress and memory, sleep, addiction, and decision-making" (quote source) are important to understand.

Dr. Jensen explains how the prefrontal cortex of a teens' brain is one of the last areas to develop and become fully connected (myelinated).  This is the area of your brain where decisions are made, where we have our impulse control, and where adults are able to use self control and think twice about risky behavior.  It's no wonder that teens make decisions that can seem senseless to adults. 

She also explains how teens can learn very quickly as connections are being made. This has benefits in education of course, but can also be problematic, especially when drugs or alcohol are involved.  These substances can be especially addictive in teens during the important formative time in their development.  Stress can also be problematic to a teen's brain development, altering how connections are made.  This can lead to increased issues with depression in adulthood.

Dementia of the Preoccupied

Toward the end of the interview, no longer talking about the teenage brain, the host asks Dr. Jensen about her own brain.  Specifically, what she has noticed happening lately, and I was especially intrigued by a term she coined, "Dementia of the Preoccupied."  
"But in a way to explain my own shortcomings in my life with so many things coming at me in one direction - having to switch modes from clinical to basic research to patients to administration, like, you know, on an hourly basis, just so much is coming at me. And you do - things fall through the cracks... So I just have now decided to call it the dementia of the preoccupied because I refuse to think that I'm actually becoming demented - that I just know it's all environmental... I think we're not dwelling on tasks long enough to consolidate our memories, frankly."
She goes on to explain that research is being done to find the "optimal age for this sort of distracted learning" and it is your mid-to-late-30s. After that it plateaus.  I know I was going somewhere with this, but I'm 42 and can't recall what exactly it was...

She ends the interview mentioning that today's medical students can't possibly memorize everything, and so medical schools are beginning to teach their students "how to access information" and the skills of "scanning" and "validating information sources and knowing where to go when." Fortunately these skills are the some of the same ones we are talking about in education: information and media literacy.  Again, I'm sure there was more I meant to write but, well, you know...

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