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  • Writer's pictureDr. Vin

Teen Brain

BACKGROUND: Last week a 19 year old male shot up a local synagogue in my county, killing one woman and injuring others including the rabbi and some children. I felt rattled to my core, moving around in a shocky state. A few days later I was sitting in a salon chair and discussing the event with my hairdresser.

I said, “It is really terrible when we are too worried to feel free – especially in places of worship, where we seek peace.”

She said, “ We are supposed to go to the rodeo soon. But I feel scared to go into public places. Like we would be sitting ducks.”

With her hands in my hair and knitting her eyebrows she said, “What kind of person…I mean, I hate to say it but he looks like a nice, clean cut kid…I just don’t get it!”

PROBLEM: What kind of person carries out this kind of brutal attack on fellow humans? Specifically, what is the makeup of these mostly young, white males who have been behind so many recent USA mass shootings, from Columbine, Colorado to the one last week in Poway, California?

SOLUTION: I don’t have the entire answer to this question. We know the pathology among perpetrators varies. The teen shooter at Parkland had a life-long history of mental illness. Many shooters are isolated, disenfranchised and find redemption online, having been drawn to an ideology of white power or extreme religious beliefs. The online community becomes an obsession, they are radicalized and join the mob mentality based on some, “us against them” view. Finally, easily acquired rifles and guns, in a culture with inadequate gun control laws, makes the ability to destroy the “enemy” simple to carry out.

But I would like to look at the question, “What kind of person would do that?” in another way. What draws young people into this behavior? Understanding the teenage brain (age 12-24) provides one possible answer. My material comes from the book, Brainstorm by Daniel J. Siegel, MD, a psychiatrist and founder of the Mindsight Institute.

Here is what a teen brain looks like. During adolescence an increased dopamine release causes teens to gravitate toward thrilling experiences. This is why they report being “bored” unless engaged in stimulating and novel activities. I recall feeling bored as a teen, thinking my sleepy small town was so dull. I was eager to get away, move to the big exciting city and escape those lethargic rolling green hills. Today I adore each beautiful bucolic photo of those same hills sent by locals from my hometown.

Teens have a dopamine-enhanced feeling of being alive. Dopamine makes brains feel an increased drive for reward. This can also make teens focus solely on a positive reward they are sure of, while they fail to notice or give value to risks or downsides. Think of teens you know when you read the three ways this manifests:

1. increased impulsiveness (action without pause = an immediate dopamine-driven impulse; action without reflection = all gas pedal and no breaks!)

2. Increased dopamine release causes a documented increase in teen susceptibility to addiction.

3. Behavior shaped by an increased drive for reward in the teen brain manifests as hyper-rationality, thinking in literal, concrete terms; examining isolated facts but not the big picture, and misses the setting or context. Teens place more weight on calculated benefits of action rather than potential risks. As teens we know the risks but we put MORE weight on exciting potential benefits of action, placing more weight on positive and less on negative results, and downplaying the significance of negative outcomes. This reward-biased mindset is true especially with other teens or being observed by friends and is strongly susceptible to peer influence. An example would be a game of chicken while racing cars.

SUMMARY: Take these teen brain dynamics into the brain of one of these young domestic terrorists. They are going to act without pausing, are getting the dopamine rush from their behavior, and put more weight on the positive result, rather than negative. What positive result? If you have a twisted belief, (e.g. there is a white genocide), then your empathy is for your “kind”, and you see yourself as a victim who needs to destroy your oppressor. The reward is that you destroyed some of the enemy. The shocked parents of the Poway shooter said he was raised, “with love, not hate” but that doesn't get at the motivation. Distortions from internet trolls grooming their son made him love his new “group”, and hate an identified oppressor. They made him lose his affinity for mankind as a whole. Wrap that up in his dopamine-influenced teen brain and you have a killer. The negative consequences of murder, dying or being arrested were minimized in his brain.

Understanding the teen brain brings insight into, “How could he do it?” but it should also highlight the responsibility of the culture in combating this trend. The teen brain is a factor that lends to easy recruitment for extreme ideologies promising the thrill of action and violence. How does the USA deal with the way in which social media can target and shape these young minds? With media access, as with gun access, we struggle with how to balance freedom and control. As a society I hope we make some progress in addressing these issues before more people get killed. For the individual teen the answer is to pause, to consider, and to channel all that power into a more humane purpose, like music, math, art or sports. As a culture, we could at least add some understanding of the teen brain into our calculations of how to reduce violence and terrorism.


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