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How to Teach Teens About the Brain

At a high school in Vermont, Amir Flesher gives his students a glimpse into how their minds work—with the goal of making adolescence less painful and nurturing their growth into happy adults.

By Greater Good Science Center

UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center oversees research and reports on the science of a meaningful life, and offers resources that foster a thriving and compassionate society. The Center provides a vital link between the ivory tower and your kitchen table, classroom or boardroom. It offers members access to well-researched content in the hopes of nurturing happy and resilient people, families, workplaces and communities.

October 30, 2013

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center website here, written by Amir Flesher.

Why did I feel alive and connected during the week I spent living on a farm in Ecuador, but depressed and unmotivated as soon as I got back home? Why do I find certain types of faces attractive and others ugly? Why do I laugh?

These are a handful of the questions that my students have tackled in “Science of the Mind,” a six-week, interdisciplinary elective I helped create six years ago at Compass School, an innovative private school in Vermont. The 11th and 12th graders in Science of the Mind use psychology, neuroscience, and mindfulness practice to confront some of the questions they are asking of themselves and the world.

My students are typically burning with two broad types of questions. The first revolves around understanding why they experience strong feelings such as sadness, anxiety, attraction, and joy. One of my students suffered from waves of sadness so powerful that she regularly fled the classroom to sob uncontrollably in the solitude of a locked bathroom stall. She was puzzled by these attacks because she has a stable, loving family, is socially connected, intellectually gifted, and was engaged in meaningful extracurricular activities. That her sadness felt unjustified made it that much worse.
The second category of questions revolves around the fundamental nature of reality. For instance, a group of roughly half a dozen of my students regularly spends lunchtime kicking around a hackeysack while vehemently debating the nature of time and space. In Science of the Mind, this common adolescent fascination with “the big questions” is channeled into deep engagement with philosophical problems such as free will and the nature of the self.

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While adolescents often lack the tools to get a handle on powerful emotions and big questions, recent research in cognitive science is offering unprecedented insights into these areas. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, has done pioneering work exploring how contemplative practices like meditation can help us manage negative emotions and cultivate positive ones. Joshua Greene, a psychology professor at Harvard University, has shed light on how gut feelings and reason battle it out in the brain to influence moral decision making. Through Science of the Mind, I draw on scientific insights such as these to help my students make sense of their own minds and their place in the world—in the process, hopefully making adolescence a bit less painful for them and nurturing their growth into healthy and happy adults.
Nearly every student who has taken the course has called it a transformative experience. “I became much more aware of my significance and place in the universe,” says one student, “which is one of the most important lessons I can think of.”

What’s more, I believe the course offers lessons not only for students but for educators—lessons in how science can help foster students’ intellectual and emotional growth, and in how we might build new types of educational experiences that promote their overall well-being.

Deconstructing the mind

Science of the Mind is built on the understanding that our perceptions, emotions, and values are mediated by a nervous system that has been shaped by evolution. Unfortunately, we do not come equipped with a user’s manual explaining how our biology sets the stage for how we navigate a world quite different from the one in which our neurobiology evolved.
The course is designed to be one integral piece of such a user’s manual. Through neuroscience and various disciplines of psychology—including cognitive, evolutionary, social, and moral psychology—students begin to deconstruct the human mind. One underlying message of the course is that human behavior and the human mind have been shaped by evolutionary forces that are quite impersonal, affecting billions of people over millions of years. When students consider this, they begin to see their own problems and shortcomings in a new light: They understand that the forces that have shaped them have shaped all people, which helps them feel a bit less weird during adolescence and a little more connected to others.

Another core message is that the notion of a unified Self is actually a composite of sensory inputs, perceptions, memories, thoughts, and emotions. As one student put it, “Our experiences and neurobiology are a collection of arrows all pointing inward to a point that isn’t there.” This realization helps many students feel less bound to negative thoughts and emotions and better able to grow and change.

Students in Science of the Mind meet for three hours a day, five days a week. Half of that time is a humanities block that includes simulations of classic psychology experiments and close readings of recent articles and book chapters related to visual perception, memory, and decision making; it also involves guided mindfulness sessions in the tradition of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program. The other half is spent in a science block in which they study neuroanatomy through activities such as dissecting a sheep brain after a visit to the Harvard Brain Bank, where they get to handle human brains. One month into the course, each student delves deeply into a self-chosen question—like those in the opening paragraph of this article—which they address by writing a popular-science-style article that we publish in our class Science of the Mind Journal.

A cornerstone of the class has been a visit to Greene’s Moral Psychology Lab at Harvard. Greene’s team has amassed a mountain of data derived from study participants solving moral dilemmas while in brain scanners. Their results suggest that moral reasoning involves a complex battle between gut feelings, based in evolutionarily older parts of the brain, and reasoning, based in the more recently evolved neocortex. Greene’s take-home message is that we must be cautious about trusting our gut instincts because they evolved in a world that is quite different from the infinitely more complex, technology-driven, globally connected one in which we live today. Most of my students have found Greene’s work to be a catalyst to helping them get a hold on both their strong emotions and on the big philosophical questions tugging at them.

The student who struggled with crippling sadness was intrigued by an analogy that Greene uses to frame evolutionary perspectives on human psychology: Humans crave foods packed with sugars because they are concentrated sources of energy. When this biological mechanism evolved, which results in these foods causing pleasure, food was potentially scarce, and sugar-packed soda was non-existent. That high-sugar foods are now associated with a slue of debilitating health problems underscores that in a modern context, adaptive traits are often divorced from—and can even counteract—the evolutionary advantage they confer.

This insight gave my student a scientific and historical context for her general sense of fear and apprehension in daily life. She saw that while the fear our ancestors experienced in small, controlled doses on the savannah is an adaptation that helped them avoid mortal dangers like predators, this same fear response can easily get out of control in the relative safety of 21st-century affluent Western society, where it is set off by a barrage of non-mortal dangers like getting into a fight with your mother or being stressed out by homework. The student went from being baffled and isolated by her fear to understanding it and feeling deeply connected to others because of the link that a universal neurobiology provides.

Another student used Greene’s work to fundamentally reevaluate his view of free will. That our moral decision making capacity is mediated by neurobiology in ways that are both predictable and unconscious led him to conclude that the faculty of will is not entirely free, but rather constrained and governed by our neural architecture. Rather than being disheartened by this realization, it served as a catalyst for curbing his sense of adolescent invincibility and hubris. He felt more empowered by peeking under the hood of his brain and grasping some of the neural processes that limit free will than he felt undercut by realizing that his will was not as free as he had previously believed.

A reservoir of ease

Another important component of Science of the Mind is the practice of mindfulness, the moment-to-moment awareness of our sensations, perceptions, thoughts, and feelings. While cognitive science serves to unpack the self at a conceptual third-person level, mindfulness practice does the same thing through direct first-person observation of the mind. Working hand-in-hand, cognitive science and mindfulness form the backbone of a comprehensive contemplative studies program.

I have shared mindfulness with students in one-time workshops, two minutes of practice at the beginning of every class period, and intensive multi-day retreats involving long periods of silent practice. The common denominator that students report from all these varied “dosages” is that mindfulness gives them a chance to experience moments of silence and calm in the midst of their hectic daily lives, helping them cultivate a reservoir of ease and stability that they can use when the going gets rough.

Emerging research on school-based mindfulness programs suggests that even one to 10 minutes of mindfulness practice, combined with 15-40 minute of discussion, can have a positive impact on cognitive performance and mood; however, more deeply experiencing the benefits of mindfulness takes significantly more training, which requires discipline and intensive practice time. It is for this reason that people go on meditation retreats—lasting anywhere from several days to three months or more—in which practitioners spend 10 to 15 hours a day in silence and formal meditation practice. Such practice can result in profound shifts of perspective and previously unheard of improvements in cognitive performance.

Practice this demanding is developmentally inappropriate for teenagers because it lacks an outlet for social interaction, play, and for processing the difficult emotions that may arise in such deep silence. However, there are retreats for teenagers that feature these missing elements, including those organized by Inward Bound Mindfulness Education (iBme), founded in 2010 to bring the benefits of more intensive practice to teens.

iBme retreats combine about five hours of formal practice a day with educational workshops, small group work, and lots of good old fashioned summer camp-type fun. iBme has served over 400 teens on residential retreats across the country, many of whom feel fundamentally transformed by the experience; one wrote that her retreat “taught me that my own thoughts and emotions are nothing to fear. iBme created a nurturing environment that allowed me to be a truly authentic version of myself. If everyone got to experience the retreat, the world would be an amazing place.”

The next phase: Semester school

Inspired by the success of iBme, not to mention my eye-opening experiences with my own students over the past six years, I am developing plans to expand my Science of the Mind class to a new and exciting format: a contemplative studies residential semester school, in which high school juniors and seniors will spend one semester away from home engaged in cooperative living, a rigorous interdisciplinary curriculum centered on Science of the Mind, and extended periods of mindfulness practices.

There are currently around a dozen semester schools operating like this in the United States, focusing on one theme intensively, but this would be the first program dedicated to contemplative studies. The fundamental goals of the program would be to provide high school students with a safe, supportive, and invigorating environment in which they can get to know their own minds better—and, as a result, feel more connected to themselves and others.

My students who have completed existing semester programs tell me that living in a small, cooperative community with a group of 40 like-minded peers for several months goes a long way toward achieving these goals, even when it is not the explicit or primary aim of the program. While students in the six-week, three-hour-a-day version of Science of the Mind have reported profound shifts in their understanding of their minds, 15 weeks of a residential program that includes several weeks of extended mindfulness practice promises to be seismically life changing.

I hear regularly from alumni of Science of the Mind how the perspectives and tools they gained from the course have helped them deal with everything from the stress of finishing a college term paper to existential questions such as choosing a life path. In feedback she wrote to me last year, one former student captures my hopes for the course perfectly: “Science of the Mind frames education as an essential part of being a happy, moral person. The class connects facts and comprehension to the project of living well. It’s kind of about empowerment—learning how to use knowledge to understand yourself, and how to use your self-knowledge toward change.”

Her comment resonates with the feedback an Inward Bound teen retreat participant gave at the end of his retreat: “At this moment I feel I have learned more lessons about myself and others in the past five days than I did in the last year of school.”

Through a contemplative studies semester school, I hope to create a place that will empower many more students to experience what these two already have, and then some.