Shortly after school ended last year, I read a recently published book, Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain, written by Sarah-Jayne Blakemore. Blakemore is a professor in cognitive neuroscience at University College London. In her book, she conveys a reminder that teenagers’ brain development, cognitive development and identity development are interrelated, and that all are likely impacted by teenagers’ environments. To give you a sense of what happens within the brain, during childhood there is a process of synaptogenesis: an enormous proliferation of dendrites (“branches” of neurons) and synapses (connections among the dendrites of different neurons). Synaptogenesis results in far more neuronal connections than the brain will ever need. As Blakemore puts it, “Which synapses remain and which are eliminated depends at least in part on environmental experience. Synapses that are being used in a particular environment are retained and strengthened; synapses that are not being used are ‘pruned’ away.”
In effect, education shapes the brain and plays a role in the types of thinkers students will be in the future. One large scale study reported by Blakemore, which included non-verbal reasoning and numerosity tasks, provided support for the notions that teenage brain development allows for meaningful improvement in domains that people sometimes believe are mainly a function of innate ability and that high school students’ receptivity to particular types of instruction is likely to change over time. Eleven to eighteen year olds all improved in non-verbal reasoning and numerosity tasks after 20 days of training, although the sixteen to eighteen year olds showed significantly greater improvement than the younger participants. Relating these findings to what we do in the high school at JDS, we continue to be mindful of all students’ abilities to improve in all academic areas and also of age/grade-specific differences and needs.
Of course, the education in the high school at JDS is more than a cognitive training ground. We teach Jewish values and are keenly interested in the types of people our students are becoming and will be in the future--i.e., their identity development. This process for teenagers is rarely, if ever, independent of their thoughts about, reactions to, and relationships with their peers. In this vein, Blakemore writes about a brain-scanning study during which participants were made to believe that they were being observed. Adolescents, compared with children and adults, reported higher levels of embarrassment and heightened levels of physiological arousal. Also, in the words of Blakemore, “...thinking they were being watched was associated with greater activity in the adolescents’ medial prefrontal cortex, a key region of the ‘social brain’ (the network of brain regions involved in understanding other people) that is involved in reflecting on the self.” In other words, this research offers brain-based evidence that adolescents are often concerned with how others, especially their peers, view them. Concern with how their peers view them can lead to conformity behaviors, and those behaviors can contribute to who they are and who they are becoming. There are certainly individual differences, which means that not all high school students at JDS are highly concerned about their peers’ views of them, but by and large, it’s a phenomenon that exists. It’s a phenomenon we think about and work to counteract.
At our opening assembly this year, I spoke about empathy. I spoke about the value of “putting ourselves in others’ shoes,” thinking about the experience and perspective of others. As many have suggested before me, empathy is valuable because it often leads to acts of kindness and service to others, as well as benefits for the self. Regular practice of empathy, by definition, means that the person’s concern shifts away from the self to others. And such a shift, experienced regularly, may be a valuable step in helping a teenager to gain not only compassion and sensitivity, but gradually, also self-assuredness and self-confidence. The balance of inner focus and outer focus for all people was discussed by David Brooks in our school-wide read, The Road to Character. In his words, “You have to give to receive. You have to surrender to something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself.” It may be that the “strength within yourself” comes from a change in brain circuitry that results from repeated instances of true focus on others.
As our students’ brains and identities are in formation during their high school years at JDS, we recognize that what they experience today can have lasting impact on their lives. Guiding them to practice with varied thinking, to believe they can improve even in areas of previous difficulty, and to look outside themselves for meaning, purpose and as a means for personal growth--these are all ways we aim to feed our students, to give them the greatest opportunities for maximal evolution, and hopefully instill in them a faith that their Jewish roots are a source of inspiration.