Teen Addiction and the Science of Mindsight

Teen Addiction and the Science of Mindsight

Written by Jeff Rogers, Posted on , in Section Must Reads

"Mindsight" and Heading Off Addictions Before They Can Take Root

A. What can teenagers get addicted to? Let me count the ways. Let’s see, drugs, alcohol, smoking, eating, sex, and cell phones, right?

B. How about the internet, social media, vaping, gambling, exercising, pornography, television, danger, music, piercing, tattoos, tanning, video games, fighting, disrespecting authority, protesting, driving fast, and not working?

C. And would you believe bath salts and lip balm too?

I think the better question is: what can’t teenagers get addicted to?

“Myths have made it so that our understanding of adolescence is misguided.”

--Daniel Siegel, Brainstorm

This is The Brain on Adolescence

Let’s be clear, blind impulsivity, raging hormones and pervasive immaturity do not explain what’s really going on with the teenagers. Dr. Daniel Siegel, in Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, 2014, says what’s really going on that makes teenagers more prone to addiction is that during adolescence, the teenage brain is going through a great deal of very important rewiring so that it can eventually become more useful when teenagers mysteriously morph into independent young adults.

In fact, it’s the adults in teenager’s lives who have to understand what’s really going on, and properly guide them on to adulthood. It is especially important that adults realize that when all this important brain growth is going on, teenagers are more vulnerable than ever. There are psychological parts of the brain that simply don’t work so well.

Change in the brain’s dopamine system leave the teenager more at-risk than ever before. Dopamine is a chemically-based neurotransmitter that is involved with rewarding the brain. Siegel explains that teen dopamine release-levels are lower than usual, and the need for the effects of dopamine are higher than usual. What this looks like in real teen-time is bored teenagers seeking things or activities that provide them with a "good feel" effect similar to that of dopamine.

Trying new things, doing things that are daring, and pushing the “edge of the envelope,” give teens the thrill they are craving. There is a rush that comes with exploring foreign territory, but unfortunately, there is also an increased likelihood that the teenage brain will get hooked on this artificial rush, wanting its effects more and more, if not all the time.

What is unfortunately learned is that this desire for “reward” can be attained to a similar degree through other chemicals…like drugs, alcohol, or nicotine.  So, instead of being satisfied with the natural release of dopamine, the brain comes to rely on and eventually abuse such chemicals that are not good for brain development, and which can permanently damage the brain, where even improper brain re-wiring can result.

Besides the reward system that is built into the brain, there is also an “appraisal system” that is changing during adolescence.  Siegel calls this the seat of hyper-rational thinking. This is where the brain weighs the decisions it makes.  During the teen years, however, the brain is unfortunately vulnerable to making decisions that give greater weight to fun. And if the building of a foundation for addiction is already underway, this “pro-con” decision-making can be subtly altered to rationalize negative activities as positive ones.

“No officer, actually I drive better after smoking dope,”


Are the Teen Years Merely a Time to Survive?

Hardly, says Siegel.  The teen years are a key time to teach adolescents how to constructively focus on their inner life, to learn mindfulness practices, which he refers to as "Mindsight" skills. Siegel explains that the more a teen is educated about his or herself internally, the greater chance they will choose to positively regulate the decisions that are being driven by their improperly functioning “reward” and “appraisal” circuits in their brain.

Bad decision-making and risky actions don’t have to be the norm for the teenage years.  You can develop skills during this vulnerable time that can actually be a benefit later...as well as now. If your brain is naturally re-wiring for adulthood, teenagers can also learn skills that will better make use of all that re-wiring. It does not have to be a crap shoot surviving adolescence. And the bonus is that you end up reducing the risk messing up your life before it really has a chance to get started.

We need to be much more about empowering teenagers to understand and take control of their lives. The more teens know about what’s going on inside them emotionally, mentally, physically, the way things actually work biologically, the better chance they will have growing up to be thoughtful and resilient adults.

“It’s not even so much that teenagers think they are invincible, but that they consider the risk so unimportant, that it doesn’t weigh on them at all.”

--Daniel Siegel, Brainstorm

“Mindsight”: Fostering Mental/Emotional/Social Intelligence in Teens

It is a monumental understatement to say that teens getting to know their brains, why they are experiencing what they are, and what they can do to more than survive the teen years is good for them, for their families, their schools, and their communities. Truth is, such could change forever the landscape of teenhood, where seeking novel and risky experiences, ignoring boundaries and stretching limits, and choosing inappropriate relationships, could become things of the past.

“The practice of intentional, non-judgemental awareness of moment-to-moment experience has been practiced since ancient times in both the East and West.”

--Daniel Siegel, The Science of Mindfulness

Mindsight Skills

There are four main parts of the teenage brain, says Siegel, in “What the Teenage Brain Can Teach Us About Ourselves,” Psychology Today, 2014, represented by the acronym ESSENCE. This is what all teens need to learn first, knowing the basics of the teenage brain…the Mindsight Knowledge Base

  • ES” stands for “emotional spark,” the part of the teen brain that gives us passion and vitality.
  • SE” stands for “social engagement,” the part of the adolescent brain that jumpstarts our gravitation toward independence.
  • N” stands for “novelty,” the part of the teenager brain that seeks rewards, and stimulation.
  • CE” stands for “creative expression,” the part of the “tween” brain that opens up to creatively exploring reality in new ways.

Internal Compass

One key Mindsight Skill, outlined by Siegel, is the “internal compass,” which involves teens being able to make sense of what their “head, heart and gut” is trying to tell them in terms of what is right or wrong. An effective internal compass enables a teen to sift through all competing voices for what to do and to say, and to arrive ultimately at what is truly the best or right thing.

Name and Tame

Another Mindsight Skill involves teens being able to name the emotions they are feeling, rather than being overwhelmed by them, and thereby muting their power.  It is essentially the ability to arrive at a mental place where a teen can say “I’m feeling angry,” instead of “I’m angry.”

Leaving Autopilot

Yet another Mindsight Skill involves teens being able to track their own thought processes, without being swept away by it, and eventually being trapped in thought loops that block ultimate progress.

Autopilot is just going with the flow, and letting whatever happens happen to you, allowing you to become victim to the events you experience.

Honing the Big 9

Knowing the brain’s pre-frontal functions is another key Mindsight Skill. Knowing about body regulation, attuned communication, emotional balance, response flexibility, fear modulation, empathy, insight, moral awareness, and intuition…the Big 9 facets of emotional well-being…helps you identify your own mental and emotional impediments, and concentrate on logically removing them

Reflection’s Tripod

The key to Mindsight is being to focus attention, reflect and resolve. Another key Mindsight Skill is being open, being objective, and being observant. Just knowing these perspectives are possible gives them power for use by teens. They engender a pervasive sense of calm that allows for appropriate pacing to move past any resistant obstacle.

Training Activities to Enhance Teen Mindshight

Siegel lists 9 activities teens can practice to develop their Mindshight.

  1. Mimicking someone else’s facial expressions and guessing their emotions.
  2. Watching TV with the sound off and letting your brain fill in the blanks.
  3. Journaling about your day in only pictures, smells, and sounds.
  4. Drawing using different sides of the brain.
  5. Journaling your daily emotions.
  6. Finding words to depict your internal world.
  7. Making mindmaps of yourself and your relationships with others.
  8. Tensing and releasing certain muscle groups to become aware of each of them separately.
  9. And having someone say ‘no’ in a harsh tone, and then ‘yes’ in a nice tone, then discussing feelings.

Mindfully Turning Our Toughts Toward Pre-Addictive Choice Making

In his two groundbreaking tomes, Siegel contends that instead of just accepting the teen years for what they are, seeing teens as naturally reckless, experimental, and rebellious...which can lead to substance abuse, and thereby cause permanent damage to contend with in adulthood...mindfulness practices, i.e. Mindsight Skills, could be taught to and practiced by teens to help them better handle this distressing and difficult time in their lives.

"Mindfulness is a gentle effort to be continuously with experience...paying attention on purpose."

--Jon Kabat-Zinn

If a teen can be made aware of their urges being experienced, the cravings, the emotions, the fears, the confusion, a conscious choice can then be made to not act on them in inappropriate or harmful ways. Teens could then practicce those skills that allow them to control their base motivations and actions and make decisions instead that lead to living a life worth living...now, and which will lay the positive foundation for later living.


Brainstorm: The Power and the Purpose of the Teenage Brain; Siegel, Daniel, 2015.