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Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, May 20th, 2018

Book Review: Read “Inventing Ourselves” to learn about the latest brain science research

Get­ting old­er is a bizarre experience.

When we’re young, we are, under­stand­ably, not very good at antic­i­pat­ing the sort of per­son we’ll one day become; only in hind­sight do we real­ize that. 

More sur­pris­ing, or at least chal­leng­ing to our sense of con­ti­nu­ity, is that once through the veil of matu­ri­ty, we’re just as poor at ret­ro­spec­tion. It’s as if we’re rein­car­nat­ed with most­ly vague rec­ol­lec­tions of our pre­vi­ous life — we retain some­thing of before, but we’re no longer the same person. 

Cog­ni­tive neu­ro­sci­en­tist Sarah-Jayne Blake­more’s book Invent­ing Our­selves is a fas­ci­nat­ing exam­i­na­tion of what recent decades of tech­no­log­i­cal progress and inves­ti­ga­tion have shown us about the teenage brain. 

In a slen­der 202 pages, Blake­more’s brisk but nev­er insub­stan­tial-seem­ing sum­ma­ry of her own work and that of many oth­er researchers demon­strates the way in which ado­les­cence is not just a use­ful mar­ket­ing term or oth­er­wise pecu­liar West­ern Euro­pean soci­o­log­i­cal inven­tion: it’s a pro­found­ly dis­tinct bio­log­i­cal — and specif­i­cal­ly neu­ro­log­i­cal —peri­od that humans and relat­ed mam­mals experience.

Inventing Ourselves by Sarah Jayne Blakemore

Invent­ing Our­selves by Sarah Jayne Blake­more (Hard­cov­er, PublicAffairs)

Tech­nol­o­gy has increased such that we can see the equiv­a­lent of high def­i­n­i­tion pho­tos of how the brain looks while rest­ing, as well as cap­ture what it is doing per­form­ing spe­cif­ic tasks, and now has been going on long enough to com­pare the same indi­vid­u­als as they age.

Blake­more, a pro­fes­sor of cog­ni­tive neu­ro­science at Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege Lon­don, did her doc­tor­ate at its Func­tion­al Imag­ing Lab and writes with the expec­ta­tion that you know noth­ing about the way the brain func­tions, or at least with the pre­sump­tion that it’s been a few years since last you learned of amyg­dalas, grey mat­ter, and action potential.

It was­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly a mis­take to assume that read­ers curi­ous about the way the teenage brain works picked up the book with no pri­or knowl­edge, but some of the par­tic­u­lars she includes, like Lon­don cab dri­vers or Phineas Gage and his skull-split­ting tamp­ing rod, are already sta­ples so might be tedious.

There­fore, before get­ting into any of this, Blake­more wise­ly hooks you with some sto­ries about her own life and adolescence.

Her brief, unas­sum­ing account of what it was like to grow up the child of a neu­ro­bi­ol­o­gist tar­get­ed by ani­mal rights activists — what­ev­er the sci­en­tif­ic val­ue, sewing shut the eye­lids of new­born kit­tens was, in terms of pub­lic rela­tions, per­haps the worst choice pos­si­ble by her father — is imme­di­ate­ly engag­ing in its own right but also illus­tra­tive of many of the themes she devel­ops later.

Blake­more was actu­al­ly not so afraid of the phys­i­cal dan­ger of mobs shout­ing out­side her house or van­dal­iz­ing their prop­er­ty as she was wor­ried of police trail­ing her walk to school in their squad car.

Even­tu­al­ly, some­one did indeed mail a pipe-bomb to their house that she near­ly opened by mis­take and may have killed her; how­ev­er, she had only been mor­ti­fied that her peers would think less of her because of all the atten­tion.

She was­n’t exceptional.

Blake­more relates how researchers have been able to demon­strate in quan­tifi­able ways how peer-opin­ion mat­ters to ado­les­cents and changes their behavior. 

For exam­ple, teens (13–16) are not any more prone to risky speed­ing through stop­lights than young adults (17–24) or adults (25+) so long as they’re dri­ving alone. But put friends in the vehi­cle, too, and teens start get­ting into crash­es much more fre­quent­ly than young adults and old­er adults, who show no change. 

While that par­tic­u­lar exam­ple was a sim­u­la­tion, I was more sur­prised than I should have been that laws lim­it­ing young dri­vers and the types of pas­sen­gers they can have a demon­stra­ble jus­ti­fi­ca­tion.

If you’re like me, of course, you may have react­ed with the equiv­a­lent of cross­ing your arms and skep­ti­cal­ly hmph­ing, “Well how do we know this isn’t all just a result of the way we’re social­iz­ing chil­dren and teens?” 

Blake­more did, of course, antic­i­pate that, and includes exam­ples of research such as how dur­ing their thir­ty-day peri­od of ado­les­cence, young mice will drink no more alco­hol than adult mice if on their own but will tend to imbibe more gen­er­ous­ly when sur­round­ed by oth­ers of their same cohort. 

So we know that young mice, too, can be wor­ry­ing­ly social drinkers under peer pres­sure! Which, by the way, is a much eas­i­er sell to the pub­lic when it comes to ani­mal test­ing than some­thing out of a less­er Saw series film.

She also talks about how brains aren’t this or that so much as they’re con­stant­ly becom­ing, espe­cial­ly in child­hood and ado­les­cence but even as adults.

Blake­more com­pares young minds to a start­up com­pa­ny that hires tens of thou­sands of peo­ple before ulti­mate­ly lay­ing off the work­ers that show least activity.

This does, per­haps, fit too neat­ly into my expec­ta­tions of why pro­gres­sive poli­cies are prac­ti­cal­ly use­ful as well as eth­i­cal­ly ben­e­fi­cial, but it’s nice to know evi­dence is there instead of wish­ful think­ing. The tar­get audi­ence of this book is sure­ly par­ents of chil­dren about to enter or amid their teenage years, but it’s a use­ful primer for all those who have to inter­act with that age. 

To adults, a sen­si­ble anti-drink­ing cam­paign might be based on the life-or-death con­se­quences of drunk dri­ving or on chron­ic liv­er damage.

Thir­teen year olds, though, may not believe that or care if they’re going to live that long any­way, so a mes­sage focus­ing on how being out-of-con­trol intox­i­cat­ed can make you sub­ject to ridicule or do things you regret that ruin your rela­tion­ships might actu­al­ly be more impactful.

When your brain is wired for in-group approval, some­one’s sage advice like, “Don’t give in to peer pres­sure” is a bit like hear­ing, “Just don’t breathe so much.”

This is the time that we are will­ing to try more risks because we’re dis­cov­er­ing what sort of per­son we want to be, what we enjoy doing, and who we want to do those things with. You have to remem­ber that you’re not talk­ing to a child or to a lit­tle adult but some­thing dis­tinct, tem­po­rary, and wonderful.

It’s a tiny book, one you can get through it in an after­noon. But if you’re on the fence, watch her TED Talk to get an out­line first. If you’re at all inter­est­ed in learn­ing more, I high­ly rec­om­mend pick­ing this up.

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