Inventing Ourselves by Sarah Jayne Blakemore
Inventing Ourselves by Sarah Jayne Blakemore (Hardcover, PublicAffairs)

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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