The abundance of new research on how teenage brains work, aside from being cool for its own sake—teen brains are developing madly, pruning synapses and insulating neurons to build a lean computing machine—is fueling a new movement to help kids make the most of the brain they've got. Think of it as a user's manual for a machine that's still being wired.
One of the leaders in that movement is Wilkie "Bill" Wilson, a neuroscientist and director of DukeLEARN, a Duke University project to teach teenagers the practical applications of neuroscience. DukeLEARN's curriculum for 9th-graders won't be in the schools until 2009, but with the first homework of the fall already being stuffed into backpacks, I asked Bill for a sneak preview. He asked: "How would you like to learn more without having to study more?" Sign me up! Here's how:
1. Get to bed and go to sleep. Sleep enables memory consolidation, which is psych-speak for saying that you remember stuff after you sleep on it. What's more, overall performance, attention, and the ability to concentrate are damaged by lack of sleep. "So you're hurt in two ways," Wilson says. Teenagers need nine to 10 hours of sleep a night for optimum performance.
2. Start studying a few days in advance of a test. Memories are embedded better if the brain is exposed to information repeatedly. Cramming doesn't work, because your brain doesn't have enough time to embed and consolidate.
3. Feed your head. The brain is an energy hog, and it runs badly if it doesn't get high-octane fuel. That means protein and complex carbs—eggs and wheat toast for breakfast, say, rather than sugary cereal and orange juice. The biggest mistake teens make, Wilson says, is to skip breakfast or to go for sugar, which raises blood sugar, followed by a quick crash.
4. Body exercise is brain exercise. Aerobic exercise really improves brain function, perhaps because it increases blood flow, or perhaps because it reduces stress and anxiety. Exercise also prompts growth of new brain neurons, at least in rats. Twenty minutes or so a day of activity that raises your heart rate will do it.
5. Learn now what you want to remember for the rest of your life. Teenage brains are much better at remembering things on a conscious level than the brains of young children or adults. Scientists aren't sure why, but they know that human brains are primed to notice and remember what's new, and teenagers are exposed to lots of new stuff. "You're going to remember the first time you had sex more than the 33rd time," Wilson says. Whatever the reason, the teenage years are the time to learn new languages and acquire other lifelong skills.
6. Harness the power of risk-taking. Adults are always harping on the downside of teenage risk-taking, and it's true that teenagers are more apt than adults to get themselves in trouble with drinking, driving, and unsafe sex, to name the biggies. But the fact that the parts of the brain that drive people to try new, risky, and exciting things appear to be more developed in teenagers can be a huge plus. Pick appropriate challenges—difficult sports, a tough job, mastering a performance art, traveling overseas—and the teenage brain is uniquely primed to tackle them. (Click here to read what the 19-year-old Harris twins told me last week about their "do hard things" campaign.) Wilson says: "You have this power you're given to go out and do it without fear."
7. Learn what you love. Because emotional systems develop faster in teenager brains than do inhibitory systems, teenagers learn things they're passionate about quickly and well. "Your brain gives you tools like attention on the project, focus," Wilson says.
Wilson's project is a work in progress; DukeLEARN will be testing whether teaching teenagers how their brains work will improve academic performance and lead them to take better care of their brains. But nobody says you can't do your own experiment, starting right now.