Psychologist Louis Cozolino describes the brain as a "social organ," saying there is no such thing as an individual human being, because we are so fundamentally shaped and co-created by our relationships. He explains that human relationships actually sculpt brain tissue: Our positive relationships trigger our brain chemistry to be more plastic, enabling us to learn more easily. Traumatic experiences, on the other hand, negatively alter the brain and can shut down learning. Our brains and bodies are constantly being shaped at a cellular and genetic level by our environments as we live. Our brains are constantly evolving through our interactions with each other.
Neurophilosopher Patricia Smith Churchland says "I am who I am because my brain is what it is," perfectly describing the rapidly developing realm of neuroscience and the insights it holds for youth development.
Our brains evolved in a tribal context, where learning was done through relationships and oral tradition. Modern education generally disregards this -- leaving young people hungry for it, and therefore vulnerable to groups like gangs that do incorporate these elements. But relationships help to engage the social networks in the brain that enable learning.
As we work with adolescents, rather than resisting these aspects of their development, we need to make space for them to bring their full selves to the program. We can harness the social motivation to learn, which is a highly effective learning strategy. The more that learning is couched in social networks and connections, the better our retention.
Practical ways to apply this approach in youth development
- Introduce new content through stories as much as possible.
- For things that are challenging to teach with stories, encourage youth to learn it "so that they could teach it to someone else"--this engages the social motivation to learn and social networks in the brain (Leiberman). Our Youth Teaching Youth programs are a great example of the effectiveness of this approach to learning.
- Consciously cultivate what Cozolino calls a "tribal environment" through the use of small groups, cooperative learning, cultivating attachment, encouraging play and story telling, fostering equality and democratic participation, and making a safe space for vulnerability and uncertainty.
By combining the insights of neuroscience with the developing realm of social and emotional learning, how can we better equip young people to develop and thrive?