Book Review:

Brainstorm by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., does a good job of covering the territory indicated by its subtitle: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain. This book helps the reader to understand how adolescents—defined as those between the ages of 12 and 24—think and behave. But there is a lot more to it, including instructions on meditation techniques and information about recent brain research.

One unusual aspect of Brainstorm is that Siegel intends for the book to be read by both adolescents and adults. So the tone of the book tends to be informal and there are even cartoons on various pages. In the course of this volume, he refers to experiences with his two adolescent kids and experiences from his own teenage years. Taken together, the informal tone, the cartoons and the personal stories make for a lively book.

Siegel discusses the upsides and downsides of four key features of adolescent brain growth: 1) novelty seeking, 2) social engagement, 3) increased emotional intensity (which can be seen in impulsivity) and 4) creative exploration. Surprisingly, he talks about how, if we feel stuck in a rut, we as adults can bring more vitality to our own lives by reviving these features in ourselves to some extent. Something else that is surprising is his discussion of “hyperrationality,” which has to do with thinking literally and not seeing the big picture. Contrary to popular belief, the risky behavior of adolescents is not just due to impulsivity; Siegel notes that adolescents tend to exhibit hyperrational thinking, which means that they place more emphasis on the potential benefits of an action than on the potential risks. Siegel states that “the positive bias of hyperrational thinking helps adolescents take on risks that they’ll need to embrace if they are to leave the nest and explore the world.”

Brainstorm provides quite a bit of information about the science of the brain, including results from recent research. Perhaps most importantly, the book makes it clear that there is evidence that the brain can continue to grow during our entire lifespans. Meditation and other practices can help us to integrate our brains (that is, to link together different parts of our brains). The book includes detailed instructions about meditation techniques that can be used to actually reshape our brains. With increased integration of our brains, we can handle challenges in our lives better, and in general, we can find more satisfaction in life. 

See more features from the April 2014 issue