Dr. Frances Jensen is the chair of the Department of Neurology in the Perelman School of Medicine at UPenn. She is incredibly accomplished. Both as a professor and researcher, she has expanded the field of neurology and synaptic plasticity a great deal. She also wrote an incredibly charming, unique, and insightful book about adolescent physiological development. Her book is terrific. It can be found at the Penn bookstore and online and you should read this review and then go read it.
After reading two short pages in Dr. Jensen’s book, A Teenage Brain, I rushed over to my parents and apologized to them for the way I was as a teenager. To my delight, they accepted my apology and explained that they never took it personally. The first few pages of the book provide a hilarious anecdote of Dr. Jensen’s teenage son having dyed his hair from auburn to jet-black without even commenting on the change. While Dr. Jensen does not set out to describe the physiological motivations behind that specific teenage move, she does wisely explain with diagrams, experiments, and more anecdotes the effects that being a teenager will have on the brain. And they are indeed far-reaching effects.
The book takes the view of almost of a “how-to” for parents raising teenagers. There are drops of advice and parental stratagem in many of her chapters, but to me I found the book as plain explanation—and sometimes excuse—for so many of the typical emotions and actions that were (and probably are) so typical to my teenage self. Additionally, the book gave me a pretty interesting insight into the mind of a parent. It’s not that I’ve never thought about what it’s like to be a parent, but Dr. Jensen really emphasized how much effort a parent could make to be an effective role model.
The book is not for the timid or shy. She comes from a place of intense curiosity and an reflexive urge to understand the basis of behavior and change. And boy does she highlight the amazing complexities of the teenage mind! There are paradoxes galore. Why do most teenagers forget to execute a chore but will almost never forget if a parent or friend slips up? How can teenagers learn so much so quickly and then often make the same mistake time after time? Why is it so difficult and fun to actually be a teenager? With these questions in mind, Dr. Jensen investigates drugs and alcohol, sleep and learning, technology and addiction, and at the root of each topic there is a clear physiological explanation and often a clear solution for either the parent or teen reader.
It goes without saying, but there is still much that needs to be understood about the teenage brain. This stage in life is clearly a time of cultural uniqueness as teens and their loud rock music bands and Twitter feeds are a group that seem to be changelessly changing. There is a method to the teenage madness, and it lies in the circuitry of a brain that seems to be picking up speed and taking off the training wheels at the same time—and the breaks definitely do not work in this teenage bicycle metaphor. Read the book, reflect on your angsty teenage self, write a poem, and while you bask in the glory of emerging from teenagerdom, please thank someone for dealing with the most difficult version of you.