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Originally published Monday, June 8, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Jerry Large

Shedding light on the teen brain

A boy and a girl kiss. She will be thinking, maybe, about how much he likes her or how much she likes him. He will not be thinking, at least...

Seattle Times staff columnist

A boy and a girl kiss.

She will be thinking, maybe, about how much he likes her or how much she likes him.

He will not be thinking, at least not with the part of the brain that controls higher functions. A scan of that part of the brain would show a "Gone Fishing" sign in the window.

Last month I wrote about how boys think. Today let's focus on girls and a talk JoAnn Deak gave for parents at The Northwest School on Capitol Hill.

Deak is a psychologist and author of "Girls will be Girls." She lectures around the world about sex and gender. And she's on the board of the Seattle Girls' School.

She spoke mostly about adolescence, which she called the magic decade, because there are "things going on that didn't happen before and that won't happen again," she said.

I called her office in Ohio and she explained that the amygdala, the part of the brain that deals with emotions, swells, which makes all teens more sensitive and volatile.

At the same time, the prefrontal cortex stops functioning well. That's the part that controls higher functions, like judgment. Hormones keep teens from falling asleep when parents say they should and make it difficult for them to wake up at hours dictated by school schedules.

The single most profound difference we could make on education, Deak said, would be to let teens sleep on nature's schedule (midnight to 9 a.m. or later).

For adolescent girls, social interaction is a huge concern. Estrogen is surging and the production of oxytocin increases. Oxytocin makes people care about relationships and connections with other people.

Girls feel that more intensely.

On top of that, girls are much better at reading faces. A boy would be oblivious to a look that would leave a girl hurt. Boys might trade punches and get over it. Girls, being less confrontational, tell their friends what an awful person Sue is and may wait for a chance to get even.

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Adults should help girls improve their conflict-management skills and help boys learn to recognize subtle emotional cues.

Deak also suggests girls fulfill their oxytocin needs with things other than friends or boyfriends. Tutor young children or care for animals. "Then when something goes wrong with your relationship with a friend or boyfriend you will have something else to hold you steady."

Teachers need to make an effort to reassure girls. A girl who believes her teacher cares about her, Deak said, will take more risks and be a better learner.

Of course these are generalizations. Certain differences dominate in one sex or the other, but every brain is different.

Some people's bodies don't give an accurate picture of their brains. Deak showed some scans of the amygdala in which heterosexual men and homosexual women showed a similar pattern.

Brain scans of heterosexual women and homosexual men looked similar.

Deak told me "I started as a teacher, but there were just too many brains for me to understand, so I became a psychologist." She laughed because learning more revealed that brains are even more complex than she thought.

People are always asking her how much of what makes a person is hardwiring and how much is the world's impact. Well, it depends, and it's different for every person.

Whatever nature gave us, the world we live in now requires each of us to be more flexible.

Deak uses rubber bands to illustrate. We are each born with a unique set of rubber bands. Big ones represent qualities or skills we have naturally in abundance.

She urges people to stretch their small bands, the skills that don't come naturally to you. And watch out for boys whose lips are puckered. Maybe your gut already told you that.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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