HuffPost: Is The Teen Brain More Vulnerable To Addiction?

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Michael Dahr interviews  Daniel Siegel, MD., director of UCLA’s training program in child psychiatry and  author of The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being. 

In this interview, Dr. Siegel seeks to correct the traditional view of adolescence as a period of immaturity that is driven by raging hormones. He believes that the impulsivity of adolescence is more accurately explained by the fact that this time in life is a period of brain remodeling that includes profound changes in the dopamine system. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that other neuroscientists of described as the “save button” in the brain.  It is  released when we are rewarded by an experience, causing us to remember the event itself as well as the steps that led to the reward. Siegel explains that dopamine release is higher in adolescents and that novelty leads to dopamine release.  He believes that this  explains why adolescents tend to take more risks than adults. 

The downside of the “dopamine shift” in adolescence  that, since psychoactive substances also  trigger the release of large amounts of dopamine, adolescents are at higher risk of addiction, and notes that “if you’re going to get addicted to something, it’s most likely to happen during adolescence.” Siegel also explains that while the dopamine story in adolescence is huge, it is complicated by the fact that appraisal circuits (in the cortex) also change.  He says that adolescents engage in “hyper-rational thinkilng” (which seems to refer to a tendency to rationalize decisions in the direction of over-emphasizing the positive aspects of a choice while minimizing potentially negative consequences. So adolescents are not accurately weighing the pros and cons of going for the next dopamine hit. He says, ”
It’s not even so much that [they think] they’re invincible, but that they just consider the risk so unimportant, that it doesn’t weigh on them at all.

Siegel thinks that mindfulness practices that help adolescents to focus on their inner life can help adolescents to increase their ability to regulate emotions and think more clearly. He says we can empower adolescents by helping them to understand their inner life, their feelings and the way their mind is working by teaching them mindfulness skills:

He says, ” You can learn to use your mind to change the way your brain regulates emotion, for example, and deals with anxiety and stress. These are learnable skills..”

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