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The Neuroscience of Teen Minds: Stories & Brain Development

Join Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, EdD, as she uncovers groundbreaking insights into teenage brain development. Through a unique research approach that uses short documentary stories, Mary Helen explores how teenagers emotionally and cognitively interact with narratives. Remarkably, she finds that these interactions can predict the teens' brain development over the next two years. And it's not about IQ, socioeconomic status, or parent education—it's something deeper. Follow along as Mary Helen discusses how this mysterious brain growth affects identity formation and even happiness in young adulthood.


The Neuroscience of Teen Minds: Stories & Brain Development

"Right now, we're doing some really powerful work on teenager's brain development and what we're actually able to show, which I just think is incredibly cool. It was like hidden in plain sight, right? The source of variation in teenager's brain development. So, the way we actually do the work is we share with them short documentary stories about kids, teenagers from all around the world in all kinds of interesting situations. And then we ask them, "How does this person's story make you feel?" The ways that teenagers engage with those stories, the way they make meaning, they search for bigger lessons in it, they become curious, they think about the broader theme of the story and what it might mean for them and their friends and their life, as compared to just directly engaging with the story itself. That the ways kids make meaning out of these stories actually allows us to predict their brain development over the subsequent two years.

So how their brain is going to grow over the next two years holding constant where they start from. So Mary Helen comes in at age 15. We take pictures of Mary Helen's brain, she rests in the scanner while we look at how her brain is activating. And then we talk to Mary Helen for two hours about how she makes sense of the social world. And then we bring Mary Helen back in two years and we look, how did Mary Helen grow her brain over the subsequent two years since we saw her last? We can predict that based on the way kids respond to those stories. And the really cool part is that IQ does not explain the effects, the family socioeconomic circumstances don't explain the effects, the parents' education levels don't explain the effects.

And it seems to be this really robust finding that the ways kids are thinking about stories and becoming curious about the social world and engaging in these very deep ways with the meaning of it and trying to understand the lessons for themselves and for the broader ethical implications. When they do show us that they're inclined to do that, we think that they're actually showing us a slice of how they go around their life every day thinking about things that they see in the world. And we can show that as they do that in real time when they start the study, it actually is modulating their brain activity in these really complex ways that involve systems for executive control, which become activated and then deactivated, and systems for self and consciousness and narrative and story being activated. And then especially if they tell us they're feeling really strong emotion at the same time, all of these constellations of dynamic shifts are happening in these very predictable patterns as they're thinking about these stories. And the degree to which they do that then grows the ways those parts of the brain actually are connected to each other over time, over the subsequent two years.

And the amazing thing is that we then follow those young people into young adulthood. So we talk to them about their identity development, how much they feel that they have really been thinking about who they are and what they stand for. And they've thought a lot about what their views are for what's best in the world for them. And they've talked about these big questions with people they love and people they trust. And when they respond that they've been doing those things to try to, and they know who they are as a person and they have a good sense of self, that is predicted by the brain growth. It's not predicted directly by the way they made sense of the stories. It's that thinking about the stories is showing us that they are working their brain to try to make meaning out of the world in these complex ways. As they do that, they grow their brain, the brain growth in turn enables them to think about who they are as a person and who they want to be. And then that identity development in turn predicts how happy they are in young adulthood. So how much they like themselves, literally a sliding scale from how much do you like the person that you've become, how much they like themselves, how satisfied they are with a whole range of social relationships. You know, we list everything and they can pick the ones that they have in their life. How much they like school or work, whatever it is they're doing, how well they think they're succeeding at the things that they're doing. Like all the stuff we most care about for our young adults is actually predicted by this brain growth that is reflective of these dispositions for engaging complexity with the social world."

-Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, EdD


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