This all started with an after-dinner conversation last month with my higher-order life-liver sister Jilly.
She mentioned that, years ago, she’d done some digging around on the Internet about how a child’s brain develops after the death of a parent. Along the way, she discovered some fascinating nuances that pretty much can’t be undone once the brain has finished doing what it does by way of developing. She’d casually mentioned this to a doctor she knew who confirmed the gist of what Jilly discovered, and said she’d mentioned that her brother was 13 while she was 8 when our dad died. The doctor made some comment about that the teen years are even more of a developmental time. Jilly couldn’t believe I hadn’t bothered to look up how my father’s unexpected death might’ve affected my brain’s growth.
I made a mental note to do some research. Which I promptly forgot about.
Fast-forward to dinner with friends last weekend. The missus and I scheduled a date with friends we had been meaning to get caught up with and we had a fun night of laughs and reminiscing and conversation. At our age, an entire half-hour gets consumed with a simple question: “So, what are your kids up to these days?” Along the way of college choices and extracurricular successes/failures and such of our progeny, one of the kids in question (a teenager) had some health issues that required some tests be read by a neurosurgeon.
Part of the conversation with the neurosurgeon highlighted the importance of 8 or 9 hours of sleep for teens each night. That particular doctor mentioned that the medical community is already active in studying the long-term effects (which won’t be known for about 10 or 15 years) on this generation of teenagers brain development with the incredible amounts of caffeine from not only coffee/Monster drinks, but other factors as well. Stuff like the general loss of sleep (such as only getting 5 or 6 hours), or the types of head injuries due to faster & stronger athletes at earlier ages, and the type of sleep given that most teenage sleep patterns are interrupted by text messages or leaving televisions on all night so they never get full R.E.M. sleep. The physician said the long-term prospects don’t look good.
This reminded me to get on the research stuff about my brain’s development over 30 years ago.
Now, keep in mind that I’m no doctor…and I’m just reading the abstracts from a few papers posted on-line (I really wasn’t THAT into their details, just the bottom lines) and there’s the danger of interpreting these things like one might a horoscope in the newspaper or a fortune cookie. I did ask my wife about the major points and she seemed to be in agreement with the big-picture bullet-points of what a death-type trauma will do to a teenage boy’s brain…which were:
Agression. Apparently, the brain section that controls this emotion becomes very active. Anybody knows me knows that the chink in my armor is anger. I have a pretty short fuse that my spiritual experience has lengthened over time, and the manifestations from the music I am naturally inclined to like seem obvious. Hello? I’m about to finish a series on how the church can learn from punk.
Problems with social attachments. This is one that is a little more difficult to pin down, but the idea is that there is a mechanism the brain develops to protect itself from getting hurt. So, in almost every relationship, you keep a little storage area that says a particular relationship is only temporary so you tend to keep arms-length about them. You kind of isolate yourself so you won’t get hurt if the people move or whatever. This is particularly true of me. It takes me a VERY long time to develop deep relationships and I’m highly selective about that.
Problems with attention or concentration. Certainly when I was younger, but thankfully my childhood kept me busy moving from task to task so it never really cost me much. Even through college when I changed majors 7 times. Not even kidding. I’d get fascinated with something like WWII and change my major to history, and the next quarter get into Socrates and change to philosophy, or Hemingway and change to English. I’m still that way when it comes to things like my career. I mean, things are going well and all I can think of are how to get to the next thing.
Numbness. The brain apparently protects itself by allowing you to compartmentalize a stressful situation and you turn off the emotions and simple deal with the problems. So, you’d be great in a foxhole because you’re able to focus entirely on the battle and not allow yourself to deal with the fear. This often leads to hyper-vigilance in that you’ll stay tenacious during the stressful time and do the job at hand…which inevitably will lead to a withdrawal later when you “crash.” Kind of like when you go white-water rafting and you’re just focused on what you are doing and you realize how tired you are once you hit calmer waters. Then the rapids start back up and you just go again. The downside is that other see you has cold and unfeeling. You also embrace a “no excuses” mindset for failure and “whiners” are not tolerated.
Loss of trust. Sort of a “picking-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps” kind of thing. You don’t bother counting on others to be there for and/or with you. It’s great if they are, and you tend to be EXTREMELY loyal to those who you do trust, but generally, you figure that most people won’t be there when you need them. Another tie-in with this is that you tend to view things from the worst-case scenario perspective, so that anything that exceeds your expectation is a pleasant surprise. My wife said that the extreme loyalty I show is manifest in everything from friends and family to sports teams to t-shirts I own. I can’t change the teams I pull for or even get rid of t-shirts from as far back as college. So, this one is a double-sided coin.
So, those were the big picture findings of my very quick, untrained research.
The one thing I’d be curious to learn about is the role my faith plays in how I’ve been transformed by this stuff or at least redeemed those traits for His good. I mean, I doubt there are studies on how that plays out. But some initial thoughts I have on that:
I am continually amazed at how my bent towards anger has been curbed, if not downright erased. In fact, others have noted that now I’m often too laid back about things I should get upset about. Don’t get me wrong…I still enjoy a good old-fashioned revolutionary mindset, but the motivation is much more positive in correcting injustice or whatever than smashing a system.
God has used my experiences to allow me to have an amazing empathy for those that are raised in single-parent situations. I am hyper-aware of them and tend to be drawn to serve those families. And, over the long-haul, it’s given me the ability to relate to most any and every family situation from good to difficult because I experienced both.
In many ways my ability to remove myself from the emotions of a tough family situation allows me to serve from a more balanced perspective. Sometimes you need to do that because it’s hard to get to truth if emotion overrides ration and thought in some cases.
God has given me some incredibly deep relationships…they may take a while, but they’re very valuable to me.
Rarely does anyone question my loyalty. Whether as a friend or to a sport team or to an employer.
Another finding was an ability to continue to ask, “What’s wrong with me?” Kind of like everyone else seems to be looking at one thing and interpreting the data wildly different than you seem to be. This is good because it leads to outside-the-box thinking which I found everybody says they like. I don’t know if they really like it, but they say they value it. But, for sure, you tend to see things very differently than the masses.
So, those are my initial thoughts on my life experience as it relates to my brain’s development. Again, keep in mind that I am NOT a doctor and am interpreting results I read on a few papers I found on the Internet…but I’d love to hear what you have to say about this or about the current state of teenagers brain development…