Brain expert Laurence Steinberg: Routine and boredom are anathema to plasticity

by Catherine Woulfe / 13 March, 2017

Brain expert Laurence Steinberg.

Doing novel and challenging activities helps keep your brain plastic. 

Teenagers are now back at school: back, we might imagine, to cramming their brains full of useful learning and life skills. Job well done?

Not nearly, says Laurence Steinberg, a world-leading expert in adolescent brains. He insists there’s much more that schools – and parents – should be doing to help young people build the best possible brains.

“Adolescence is our last best chance to make a difference,” the Temple University psychology professor says in his 2014 book Age of Opportunity.

Citing neurological research that has largely emerged over the past five years, he says adolescence is a second window – after the first three years of life – during which the brain is exquisitely sensitive to experience. In other words, it is remarkably plastic.


Read more: New evidence is pointing to the benefits of a brain-exercise programme previously considered controversial


Steinberg has spent 40 years ­studying adolescents and their brains. He has more than 350 academic articles and 17 books to his name, and was adamant when he last spoke to the Listener. “The myth we now need to stamp out,” he says, “is that the way in which the brain develops during ­adolescence is all determined by ­biology and by genes. In fact, the ­plasticity of the brain makes it possible to influence the way it develops.”

There’s little point in drilling kids in calculus and grammar. Instead, “the capacity for self-regulation is probably the single most important contributor to achievement, mental health and social success”, he says. “In study after study of adolescents, in samples of young people ranging from privileged suburban youth to destitute inner-city teenagers, those who score high on measures of self-regulation ­invariably fare best … This makes ­developing ­self-­regulation the central task of ­adolescence, and the goal that we should be pursuing …”

Families have the most powerful effect here. “Practise authoritative parenting,” Steinberg urges. “Be warm. Be firm. And be supportive.” Set rules that make sense and explain them to your child. Be physically affectionate. Be consistent and fair, and as children mature, scaffold the risks you’ll allow them to take: push a curfew out in half-hour increments, for example. (Click here for a simple quiz to identify your parenting style, and tips on authoritative parenting).

Schools, too, have an important role. Steinberg says they should incorporate daily activities that strengthen self-regulation. He is pleased to hear that mindfulness is popping up in New Zealand schools. He bemoans the fact that physical education has been all but eradicated from the US curriculum. “That’s a terrible mistake, given what we know about the impact of aerobic exercise on the brain.”

And he wishes we would give all those plastic, revving-up teen brains a bit more of a workout. After his book went to press, he came across surveys that found only 15% of US high school students felt they’d ever taken a course that was difficult or challenging. “And that’s just an atrocity. I mean ever.”

What about adult brains?

Steinberg emphasises that the brain stays plastic throughout life – hence our ability to recover from brain injury, learn new skills and adapt to new environments.

Change will be much easier, though, if you catch your brain while it’s still in that adolescent surge of malleability. ­Steinberg says that because of the increasingly early onset of puberty, and the pushing back of harbingers of adult routine, such as children, marriage and careers, this window now lasts from about 10 until the mid-twenties.

Aged 26 when she started her brain-training regime, Barbara ­Arrowsmith-Young may have just managed to push that window open again as it was closing.

“There’s no way to tell whether you’re still living in [that] period of plasticity or not,” Steinberg says. Brain-scan ­technology can’t pick it up and there’s no diagnostic test – “although I think that you probably will be able to [diagnose plasticity] some day, because there are certain brain enzymes that seem to be related to a loss of plasticity that appear in adult brains”.

His advice mirrors the approach Arrowsmith-Young took all those years ago. Routine, boredom and ­complacency are anathema to plasticity. “Try to stay involved in novel and challenging activities,” he says. “If the brain is still plastic, you can make a difference.”

This article was first published in the February 25, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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