Effortlessly guiding on a developmental journey

Dr Catherine Loveday (University of Westminster) reviews 'Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain' by Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore.

Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore is on to a winning topic with her new book. Few of us would want to muddle our way through adolescence again and yet by all accounts, it is the period of our life that we remember most easily and are particularly nostalgic for. Why is it such an inherently interesting time? And why do parents and secondary school teachers sometimes find this age group so challenging?

As Blakemore points out in her opening page, teenagers do sometimes behave differently from adults – they may be self-conscious, take risks, show heightened susceptibility to peer pressure, appear to behave irrationally, have sudden mood swings, or not want to get up in the morning. But, insists Blakemore, adolescence is not an aberration. It is a normal and universally important part of the developmental journey, and one that can be much better understood by recognising the underlying changes that occur in the brain during this time. And there are few people more qualified to explain these than the author of this compelling book.

What I enjoyed most about this book was the readability and personal style of the narrative. Blakemore manages to present a highly accessible account of the science, without ever compromising on detail or depth. She shares important personal memories about what it was like to be a teenager and how it feels to be in a brain scanner, as well as key moments that inspired her to become a neuroscientist and why she focused on the adolescent brain. Where Blakemore discusses her own research, there is almost a sense that the reader is in the lab, listening in on the discussions and taking part in the decisions.

The opening chapter reveals that although scientific understanding of this neurodevelopmental stage is relatively new, adolescence has long been recognised as a universally distinct period. The behaviours that we tend to associate with a typical teenager are recognised across many cultures and can be found throughout history (Blakemore cites both Socrates and Shakespeare). And it is not just a human phenomenon – for example, adolescent mice, given free access to alcohol, will drink more of it when they are with other adolescent mice, something that adult mice don’t do.

Subsequent chapters explore the importance of self and peer relationships, as well as clarifying why there is more to risk-taking than initially meets the eye. Blakemore then guides the reader effortlessly through the complexities of her own extensive research, showing how changes in brain structure and function may be responsible for the behaviours that we typically associate with adolescence. She is very careful not to simplify her findings, and takes the time to explain the pitfalls of the correlation / causation trap, as well as making sure that the reader is informed enough to draw their own conclusions. Where necessary, she takes a short detour to expand on important principles, for example how neuroimaging works and what plasticity means.      

This book has something to offer everyone, whether you are a parent, a secondary school teacher, a student of psychology or neuroscience, a policy maker, or a 15 year-old trying to make sense of life. It is certainly as useful to me as a resource for my developmental lectures as it is for me as the parent of two teenagers. Blakemore provides a unique and very up-to-date insight into the changes that occur during this intriguing period. As she points out, adolescence may be typically seen as a period of moodiness, impulsivity, emotional lability, and it is certainly a time of vulnerability. But it is also a very special time, with extraordinary windows of opportunity.

- Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain is published by Doubleday. For your chance to win a copy, keep an eye on Twitter @psychmag. For more from Professor Blakemore on the teenage brain, see the transcript of her 2015 session with us at Latitude Festival

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