Clash of the Heart and Mind (心脑的冲突)
Time and time again, we read and listen to news about young persons making choices that subject themselves and / or others to risk or harm. What made them do it? Let me highlight some news that made headlines in Singapore, and indicate the year to illustrate a point.
The year illustrates the point that regardless of time, young people will make choices that could and would subject themselves to risk or harm. The questions is why?
There are many reasons we can come up with, and there are also many theories that can explain why youths make such choices. In this book, I am only proposing one perspective, and I strongly feel that this evidence-based view is foundational to understanding and working with teenagers.
From the same foundational knowledge, we will be able to appreciate how youths can also make good choices that would not subject themselves to risk or harm, and make choices that can lead them to achieve personal success.
Usually, this can happen when the adults caring for and working with youths leverage this knowledge about the “clash of the mind and heart”, and engage them intentionally for purposeful and more positive outcomes.
I like to boldly recommend at this point that anyone working with teenagers really needs to know and understand what I am about to teach. It is imperative that anyone working with teenagers knows this!
When we talk about the Clash of the Mind and Heart, we are essentially talking about two particular areas of the human brain. These two areas can help us understand why adolescents are the way they are, and how we can engage and work with them better.
The first area of the human brain that we need to know is the Prefrontal Cortex, otherwise known as PFC. This is the part of the brain that is primarily responsible for impulse control, forward planning, consequences consideration, and decision making.
The other area of the human brain that we need to know is the Limbic System. This emotional motor system is responsible for the experience and expression of emotions. It is located in the core of the human brain, and deals with four key functions: emotions, memories, learning and arousal (or stimulation).
You can tell now that the Mind refers to the PFC functions and the Heart refers to the Limbic functions. They are broadly the rational and emotional parts of us that develop at different rates when we grow up, particularly during the adolescence period.
As a result, the imbalance between prefrontal and limbic responses is real and it is biological. I call it the Clash of the Mind and Heart!
Research informs us that the Limbic System is fully developed during puberty at 10 – 15 years old. The prefrontal cortex, however, begins to develop during puberty, and becomes fully mature only at the age of 20 – 25 years old. That is ten years apart! The reason for this is that the brain matures from the back to the front of the brain.
Adolescents would instinctively react emotionally when their emotions are triggered. If they are angry, it is unlikely that their first response will be well-considered. It is unlikely also that they would have thought of the consequences, deliberated on possible actions, and executed an action appropriately.
It would take about 25 years to develop the full Limbic-PFC system neuronal networks. It is especially important for parents to note that the window of opportunity for the development of the Limbic-PFC neuronal networks is from age 5 to adolescence.
The child will unconditionally seek for positive sensational experiences or novelties. The drive to seek such experiences is naturally strong. It is often a limbic behavior.
Deprivation of those experiences will lead the child to “fight”. If the child were hungry, she would naturally seek food without any PFC interventions. If the child were angry, he may naturally express that emotion aggressively.
We can now appreciate better that in the seeking for food or comfort when the child is hungry or angry, the child may not know that it is inappropriate to steal the food or hit someone else unless we help them learn.
The ability to learn is primarily a cognitive function. The cornerstone of cognitive development is the ability to suppress inappropriate thoughts and actions in favor of goal-directed ones, especially in the presence of compelling incentives.
Therefore, teaching a young person appropriate behaviors in response to trying to experience a positive sensation needs to be done consistently over time, with compelling rewards to motivate the learning or the change. It also needs to be goal-directed. Otherwise, the learning would be susceptible to interference from competing sources. Goal-directed behavior requires the control of impulses or delay of gratification for optimization of outcomes, and this ability matures across childhood and adolescence.
Let us now put everything on a graph and see what we can learn.
If you look at it, the shaded area in the graph reflects the window of opportunities for parents, educators and youth workers, to assist adolescents to develop the full Limbic-PFC neuronal networks.
Some adults may consider this same period as the risky period because this is the period that adolescents are the most susceptible to negative and inappropriate resources. Indeed, when they do succumb to the negatives, it will manifest in what we often call us unruly or at-risk behaviors.
Therefore, guided by the understanding of neurobiology, the brain is literally “under construction” during this period. Everything the child learns stimulates the growth of brain neurons.
Suffice to say, teaching needs to be consistently engaging, so that the child is motivated to learn. Parents want to learn how to engage their adolescents effectively, and aim to be an instrumental person in your child’s life to help them maneuver around the negatives and inappropriate resources. In this regard, supervision is necessary.
The more consistent the engagement is with the adolescent, by appealing more to the early development of the limbic system, the higher the chance for impulse control to develop in a more sustained way.
This means that adolescents can be taught to manage their impulses and delay their gratification; but it needs to be taught in a goal-directed fashion, appealing to the heart – the limblic system!