Thursday, February 16, 2012


Murder in the class room
A report published in the Indian newspaper The Hindu on February 10, 2012 reads: “Tension gripped Armenian Street in Parry's Corner on Thursday as word spread that a teacher had been murdered in a private school in the area. The St. Mary's Anglo Indian Higher Secondary School which is nestled behind a church is 167 years old. Around 1,500 students study in the school. The class IX student, who carried a kitchen knife, had attacked a teacher, Uma Maheshwari, while she was correcting notes in a classroom on the first floor of the building. According to a police officer investigating the case, the boy had purchased the knife on Tuesday from a shop for Rs.20 and planned to carry out the act on Wednesday itself.”

A psychologist’s view
Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy at the University of California, wrote in the Saturday Essay titled “What's Wrong With the Teenage Mind?” in the Wall street journal of January 28, 2012: "‘what was he thinking?’ It's the familiar cry of bewildered parents trying to understand why their teenagers act the way they do.”
The Saturday Essay continues: “How does the boy who can thoughtfully explain the reasons never to drink and drive end up in a drunken crash? Why does the girl who knows all about birth control find herself pregnant by a boy she doesn't even like? What happened to the gifted, imaginative child who excelled through high school but then dropped out of college, drifted from job to job and now lives in his parents' basement?”

Adolescence has always been troubled and turbulent
Why so? The answer is: due to teenage weirdness. Weirdness means a spell or charm. Developmental psychologists and neuroscientists have now come up with an explanation of the foundations of that weirdness. The new concept is that there are two different neurological and psychological systems that operate while childhood blossom into adulthood. Alison Gopnik writes: “Over the past two centuries, and even more over the past generation, the developmental timing of these two systems has changed. That, in turn, has profoundly changed adolescence and produced new kinds of adolescent woe. The big question for anyone who deals with young people today is how we can go about bringing these cogs of the teenage mind into sync once again.”
Reward system in the brain
Reward Pathways begins in the mid brain
The first of these two systems deals with emotion and motivation. It is very closely linked to the biological and chemical changes of puberty and involves the areas of the brain that respond to rewards. Reward is an operational concept for describing the positive value an individual ascribes to an object, behavioral act or an internal physical state. It associated with a very positive feeling of well being or euphoria and pleasure. Natural rewards include those that are necessary for the survival of species, such as eating, mating, and fighting. This reward system turns the placid child into restless, turbulent, emotionally intense teenager, desperate to attain every goal, fulfill every desire and experience every sensation. Later, it turns them back into relatively placid adult.
The major neurochemical pathway of the reward system in the brain involves the mesolimbicand mesocortical pathway. The pathway begins in the ventral tegmental area of the midbrain and connects to the limbic system via the nucleus accumbens, the amygdala, the hippocampus and as well as to the medial prefrontal cortex.  

Overestimation of rewards
Recent studies by the neuroscientist B.J. Casey's at Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology suggest that adolescents are reckless because they overestimate rewards. In other words adolescents find rewards more rewarding than adults do. The reward centers of the adolescent brain are much more active than those of either children or adults. Think about the incomparable intensity of first love!

Social rewards more valuable
The teenagers give much importance to the social rewards than the natural rewards pointed out earlier. This is more in the respect of their peers. In a recent study by the developmental psychologist Laurence Steinberg at Temple University, teenagers did a simulated high-risk driving task while they were lying in a brain-imaging machine. The reward system of their brains lighted up much more when they thought another teenager was watching what they did—and they took more risks.

Control system
The second crucial system in the brain is that of control. This system originate from the foremost portion of the frontal cortex and reaches out to control and guide other parts of the brain, including the parts that govern motivation and emotion. This is the system that inhibits impulses and guides decision-making that encourages long-term planning and delays gratification.
The functional efficiency of the control system depends much more on learning. It becomes increasingly effective throughout childhood and continues to develop during adolescence and adulthood, as we gain more experience. You come to make better decisions by making not-so-good decisions and then correcting them. You become a good planner by making plans, implementing them and seeing the results again and again. Expertise comes with experience.
In the distant past of the human history, these systems of motivation and control were working in tandem. In the past, to become a good gatherer or hunter, cook or caregiver, you would actually practice gathering, hunting, cooking and taking care of children all through middle childhood and early adolescence. This tunes up the control system in the frontal cortex. In contemporary life, the relationship between these two systems has changed dramatically. Puberty arrives earlier, and the motivational system kicks in earlier too.At the same time, contemporary children have very little experience with the kinds of tasks that they'll have to perform as grown-ups. Children have increasingly little chance to practice even basic skills like cooking and caregiving. Contemporary adolescents and pre-adolescents often don't do much of anything except go to school.
The experience of trying to achieve a real goal in real time in the real world is increasingly delayed, and the growth of the control system depends on just those experiences. The pediatrician and developmental psychologist Ronald Dahl at the University of California, Berkeley, said: “Today's adolescents develop an accelerator a long time before they can steer and brake.”

The remedy
Instead of simply giving adolescents more and more sermons on good behaviour give them extra hours of after-school classes and homework—we could try to arrange more opportunities for apprenticeship. Work develops the control system in the brain. Community-service programmes for youth is the best way to tame the overactive reward system of the adolescent brain. "Take your child to work" could become a routine practice rather than a single-day annual event, and college students could spend more time watching and helping scientists and scholars at work rather than just listening to their lectures. Summer enrichment activities like camp and travel, now so common for children whose parents have means, might be usefully alternated with summer jobs, with real responsibilities. It is better not just accept the developmental patterns of adolescent brains. We can actually shape and change them, not by sermons but by activities.

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