I’ve focused much of the past two years on the underlying neurobiology of adolescence. Corwin Press recently published the result of my efforts,The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy (2007).

Adolescence has been integral to much of my life. Like all adults, I was once an adolescent. My wife and I have seven children who made their own adolescent journeys — and we have 20 grandchildren who are now contemplating, experiencing, or completing adolescence. Further, I’ve taught thousands of adolescents during my professional career. I’m continually amazed by both the regularity and variability observed within adolescence— and I’m fascinated by the important new insights into adolescence that are emerging out of cognitive neuroscience research.

Adolescence as Art
The concepts regularity and variability suggest that we might think of adolescence as an art form. Art, like life, transforms the ordinary into something extraordinary. An artistic expression isn’t generally impressive during its formative stages, when the artist is exploring various possibilities of what the expression will eventually become. When it’s finally complete though, folks have to accept the artistic expression for what it’s become. They may or may not like it, but they have to respect its completed intrinsic integrity.

Art is a unique expression that emerges out of the regularities of a defined form. A piano concerto follows a form, but no two composed concertos (or paintings or dramas) are the same. If artistic expression is reproducible, it becomes craft. There’s certainly nothing wrong with predictable craft, but it isn’t unique art. Art can morph into craft, and craft can morph into art, but each has a distinct legitimate identity.

Let’s think thus of the developmental focus of our compliant sheltered childhood as something akin to craft, and the adolescent reach for an autonomous adulthood as art.

From Childhood Craft to Adult Art
CHILDHOOD: An infant isn’t much more than a wet noisy pet, 20 or so years from becoming an autonomous adult. A key childhood task is to master the predictable regularities of existing human knowledge and skills — the fluid movements, local language, cultural information, and social skills that characterize childhood learning.

Childhood brain development is focused on cognitive systems (located principally in the sensory lobes toward the back of our brain’s cortex) that recognize the familiar and novel dynamics of the challenges we continually confront. A child must learn the regularities and irregularities that are implicit in how the world works. Will a specific dropped object bounce, break, or splat? How do I tie my shoes or phone for help? How much is 6 X 5? Will the leaves fall again during autumn?

Childhood learning thus resembles craft, in that it focuses on the predictable, the reproducible, the rules. A child tends to view the world in factual true and false terms, because it’s very important for a brain to rapidly and accurately determine the general and specific nature of the challenges it confronts. Being able to classify many objects and events into a small number of general categories is thus essential. For example, although no two leaves under a maple tree are identical, they’re all maple leaves.

With practice, the information and skills children master become automatic—and school standards and testing programs become a variant of the quality control programs commonly associated with manufactured craft.

Children can focus on this preliminary task of comprehending the world because they live in a sheltered environment in which their parents and other adults make the decisions that shape their life. In effect adults become the frontal lobes of children.

ADOLESCENCE: Conversely, much of adolescent development is centered in our frontal lobes, the part of our brain that determines and executes a personal response to the current challenge. Most problems don’t have a single correct response. What’s the correct response to a restaurant menu? A menu has many choices that involve factual information, such as price and ingredients, but the typical diner can create many possible meals out of a restaurant menu, just as a composer can create many concertos out of a 12-tone scale and orchestral instruments.

The factual distance between true and false is very narrow, but the affective distance between right and wrong, fair and unfair, moral and immoral, beautiful and ugly and similar dichotomies is generally much wider. Childhood and craft are about true/false, and adolescence and art are about right/wrong and the other fuzzy dichotomies.

Artists typically master the basic forms that characterize their field before they seriously explore the variations. Arts education programs thus tend to focus initially on choreographed movements before improvisation, on scales before songs, on themes before variations. Even such improvisational art forms as jazz require instrumental competence and a deep comprehension of the improvised melody.

Think of a boy on a skateboard. His first task is to master balance and basic movements, but as soon as he’s comfortable with such preliminaries, his focus shifts to the aesthetics of skateboarding, which allow him to move with individualized style and grace. Similarly, a girl who initially merely learns how to stand on ice skates may later skate in the Olympics. And both will frequently fall down, even when they’ve reached virtuoso levels.

Adolescents draw on their childhood observations of parents and other adults as they begin to explore what their own adult life might be like. And like art students who feel they’ve mastered the basics and explore afield, adolescents tend to explore what life has to offer beyond the confines of the family beliefs and boundaries that characterized their childhood.

It’s an exciting necessary exploration for the adolescents, but it’s often scary for their parents. Parents sense wasted time and energy as their adolescent flits from one transitory interest to another. And yet, the ability and willingness to abandon something that initially seemed a good idea is important to the development of anything that might be viewed as art.

All completed manuscripts I’ve written have an accompanying huge pile of draft pages that I rejected. Similarly, x-ray studies of paintings by famous artists often uncover earlier versions underneath. Beauty isn’t cheap.

Our frontal lobes are capable of processing a seemingly limitless number preferences and choices, and so we’ve become a creative species that enhanced our capabilities and moved well beyond our biological limitations. Much of this creativity in art, science, and technology results from the efforts of young adults. They learned to function within the existing acceptable range during childhood, explored what existed beyond that range during their adolescence, and extended the societal range during their early adult years.

Childhood craft and adolescent art need supportive mentoring adults who provide unconditional love, continuous discerning critical assessment, and an acceptance of the reality that art always takes us beyond where we’ve been.