My Amygdala Ate My Homework!

Falling Out of Chairs, Bursting Into Tears: It's Just Another Day on the Job.

By Launa Schweizer ’91    

WHEN I ARRIVE AT MY JOB, SEVERAL PEOPLE RUN TO THE DOOR to hug me. Each day, at least one person falls out of her chair, someone bursts into tears and several fail to complete their work. My co-workers drop food on the carpet, flip upside down into headstands and make fart jokes. Half of them interrupt me with off-topic remarks. The other half sit in sullen silence. Some- times they pick off the keys from our shared keyboards. Really. I wish I were kidding.

When I get home, things are similar. While my roommates have recently grown taller than I am, they are only intermit- tently able to cook a meal and clean up, or wash and fold their laundry. A person who worked or lived with adults like these might quit or move out. But in my world, these behaviors are not only normal but healthy. The people I work with are my middle school students, and my newly tall roommates are my own teen- aged daughters.

Patience, emotional stability and flexibility are essentials
in my work, but a solid understanding of neuroscience is my sharpest tool. I first began to understand the brain in Professor Lisa Raskin’s sophomore-level neuroscience class at Amherst. Although I now teach humanities, and took nearly half of my Amherst courses in the English department, her lessons have shaped my thinking ever since.

Neuroscientist JoAnn Deak calls teachers “neurosculptors,” because everything we do—or fail to do—has a long-term impact on our students’ brains. The more I can inspire my students to attempt now, the more they will be able to do later on.

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But my adult-sized students need not act like actual adults. In fact, they need to be impulsive, inconsistent and intensely emo- tional. When I start to utter that classic adult scold, “You should know better!,” I try to check myself and recognize: actually, that is not the case at all.

Mature brains make good decisions when three brain regions work together smoothly. The amygdala initiates an emotional choice, signaling with cavemanlike insistence that it’s time to act. It grunts at the cerebral cortex, the eager nerd in our brains, to generate plans and ideas for how to get that something done. The frontal cortex, like the bossy front-office executive, then chooses among those options. Wise choices require processing in all three areas.

The typical adolescent’s cerebral cortex gears up during middle school and is working at full strength by age 15 or 16.

Adolescents feel smart (hence the sassing back and eye-rolling) no matter how shallow their experience or poor their judgment. To learn, they need to exercise this new power by sending it fly- ing off awkwardly in all directions.

However, my students (I must remind myself, over and over) also have newly empowered amygdalae. The amygdala is a primal, deep-brain structure that cues aggression and fear but is also crucial to the most basic sort of learning: fear condition- ing. Recent MRI studies demonstrate high levels of activity in the amygdala starting six months before puberty. Other studies show that kids with the largest amygdalae argue more with their mothers. Really. Again, I wish I were kidding.

Smart brain. Intense emotional learning. Only one problem: because the cortex develops from back to front, my students’ passionate brains are operating without adequate judgment. The amygdala is shouting at the cortex, “Do something!” The cerebral cortex is firing off powerful ideas in response. But there is precious little activity in the frontal cortex, where wisdom and judgment will one day hold sway. Hence their flashes of bril- liance and their equally frequent missteps.

Think back to your own adolescence, which neurobiologists would tell you continued into your early 20s, when your three brain regions came into their adult forms of alignment. Think
of your own questionable choices, your powerful emotions, the risk-taking that probably paid off as frequently as it led to failure. If you have college memories that cause you to exult or cringe, thank your adolescent brain. You were not then just a flawed adult but also a remarkable learner, growing in fits and beautiful starts.

This is what I must remember each time an adolescent in my world shouts in my ear, slams a door or neglects some crucial responsibility. We adults must gently guide from the outside, remembering all the learning, growth and energy germinating within. The line between guiding and shaming is different for every child; parents need to model compassion and respect, and acknowledge our own missteps.

But most importantly, we must embrace the awkwardness. The goal is not that children look, behave, speak and think per- fectly at age 13, but rather that they spend their adolescent years trying, failing, then trying again, getting comfortable with the effort and risk-taking that healthy growth and deep learning require. k

Launa Schweizer ’91, a teacher and writer, lives with her family in Brooklyn, N.Y. An earlier version of this essay appeared at RewireMe.com. 

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