In 1992, I began a Ph.D. program in developmental psychology at the University of Oregon. This was an exciting, groundbreaking time to study young children in research labs across the country. The field of infant brain research was in its own infancy. Psychologists, neurologists and other scientists focused on developing and using new technologies that could map and measure brain activity, using geodesic nets that at first glance resembled those things the precogs wore in Minority Report.

This inaugural research led to amazing discoveries about brain structures and functioning during the first three years of life. This decade and the next marked a monumental time when science, public policy, education and the industrial toy complex intersected in sometimes amazing, sometimes overly commercial ways. State governments were sending Mozart CDs to new moms. Toys were branded with words such as brainy, IQ and neuro in their titles. Early childhood conferences boasted keynotes and workshops about techniques for supporting early brain development through curriculum and playthings, and you couldn’t attend a baby shower without someone gifting a Baby Einstein video.

In many ways, this surge of interest and these fascinating findings in the field of infant brain research a few decades ago are now mirrored in what we see in the field of adolescent neuroscience. We are standing on the verge of an exciting time to be working with tweens and teens because of the scientific findings that verify adolescence as a unique developmental period—and that help us better understand this time of life. In turn, this understanding can inform how we approach teaching and learning with the students in our ministry.

Brain 101
First, a quick lesson on brain anatomy and functioning. When we are born, we have all the brain cells we’ll ever have, about 100 billion. (Talk about a grand entrance!) From that point on, brain cells (also called neurons) begin to die; but that’s because efficiencies in neural development begin from the time we are born. A baby doesn’t need to grow more brain cells. A baby needs the neurons she has to start becoming more efficient in communicating with each other. Cells that communicate with each other more frequently will build stronger, richer pathways, while pathways that form but are not regularly activated can weaken or disappear. This process of pathway formation and loss is summed up in the concise phrase “Use it or lose it,” which captures how our brains continuously are disposed to respond to the physical, social, cognitive and emotional environment around us.

Gardening the Brain
The formation of neural pathways can be explained by two major processes that have names that may remind you more of gardening than gray matter. The section of a brain cell that connects with nearby cells is called a dendrite. An individual neuron can have thousands of them that look like the spread of a single tree’s branches. Dendritic arborization occurs when additional dendrites grow in response to more exposure to visual information. This arborization happens when we are exposed repeatedly to stimuli in our environment (e.g., the sound of a loved one’s voice, the taste of a dish you only eat at Christmas, the sight of the exit sign you take to get home). Dendritic arborization also occurs when we repeat actions so they become smoother and more coordinated. The squawking violin sounds of one’s earliest attempts to play the instrument transform into Mozart’s minuets; a swarm of preschoolers on a soccer field becomes the limber, graceful kicks of a middle school team. As a result of repeated experience, our cells grow richer, denser networks of dendrites.

Branching out and growth isn’t the only process going on here. A process called synaptic pruning is a necessary part of brain development, too. If dendritic connections kept growing and expanding, the brain would become slower and less efficient. The process of pruning occurs to connections that are not used as frequently so the brain transmits impulses efficiently. (That’s the “lose it” part of “Use it or lose it” at work.)

Architects of Experience
Many of these pathways are formed and pruned according to a developmental trajectory determined by human DNA. Most babies crawl, walk, smile, talk and play on a predictable schedule; but many other pathways form because of the experiences humans have every day of their lives. Young children who hear music regularly have pathways that recognize melody, rhythm and pitch. A little leaguer who has thrown 1,000 pitches has a vast network of connections between visual and motor centers in the brain. This discovery of the influence of experiences on brain, which has been demonstrated across the lifespan, is worth restating. Experience shapes the brain.

This is where you enter. You are an architect of experiences for students. During all of your interactions with them (and even when you’re not there), you are influencing how students’ neural pathways form and are strengthened or weakened. We may use “Jesus is in my heart” language to talk about faith, but you are providing experiences that lead to Jesus in their brains. By providing many kinds of faith formation experiences and teaching faith practices students can use when they aren’t in our presence, we are making our mark on a cellular level.

Impressionable Youth
Rich, meaningful interpersonal experiences with students in large or small groups and one-on-one settings are cornerstones of youth ministry. You’re a pro at that, right? Your influence goes beyond what they tell you about or how you may see them acting and feeling. You actually are making an impression on their brains. Consider the neurological activities in a student’s brain as you read from Scripture, play a game together, or lead a servant event. Assuming this isn’t the first time you’ve interacted with them, your students have developed neural pathways that recognize the sound of your voice, cues about your moods, and the meaning of your words (well, most of the time). Student brains also are detecting cues from your facial expressions, posture, tone of your voice, and other nonverbals. Getting to know you goes far beyond hearing your most embarrassing story. Getting to know you means recognizing, at a neurological level, how you look, sound, move—and perhaps smell. (Yes, they can develop neural pathways for how your coffee breath smells.)

Beyond these personal connections you make with students in these interactions, you also are deeply involved in planning all kinds of activities to support youth ministry in your setting. As architects of experiences for students in ministry, consider how these faith formation opportunities are making their mark on neural pathways in their brains.

When You Read the Bible Together
New pathways form as we enter Bible stories together with students. As you plan your teaching and learning with Scripture, consider how these experiences can develop new pathways and strengthen existing ones. Even when the stories are familiar, students’ advances in cognitive development mean that neural pathways are forming as they understand new concepts, gain new insights, and apply them to their own lives.

Hearing the words of familiar Bible verses more than once can help students encode and remember these words. Take a look at the strategies mentioned for “keeping these words” in Deuteronomy 6:6-9: “Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” All of them can be backed by psychological science on memory.

When You Hug and High-Five Together
We know that helping students feel emotionally safe is an important goal of ministry. This sense of security is the result of pathways in cognitive, emotional and physical centers of the brain developing after repeated safe experiences in different settings with leaders and fellow students. Along with this sense of safety, you also model how to show safe, appropriate physical touch. For students with changing bodies and surging emotions, what a relief to know they can rely on secure, predictable touch from their leaders and other caring adults. Their brains learn that touch they feel in your ministry can feel good and safe. (This assurance is especially important for students who have experienced physical trauma or abuse.)

When You Sing Together
Your youth ministry probably has quite a soundtrack: the latest MP3 downloads from students’ playlists, worship music, camp songs and Sunday School tunes from childhood days. Those who study music cognition have found compelling evidence to show that strong neural pathways can form based on exposure to music, whether listening to music, singing or playing an instrument. (Note: Alzheimer’s patients who’ve lost the ability to speak often still can sing songs they learned in Sunday School.) Music taps into so many areas of the brain—singing, moving, dancing, playing instruments, feeling strong emotions are only a few. When we harness the power of music in our teaching and learning, we are helping faith formation experiences go deep into the brain.

As you plan teaching and learning experiences with your students, think about the power you have to shape neural pathways. Whether you’re embracing rituals, leading songs in worship, or playing a spectacular game of Capture the Flag, embrace your role as an experience architect who is making a difference in the cells of the students in your presence.

Now that you know there are neural pathways with your name on them, how can you better understand what kinds of changes are underway during the adolescent years? Behold the prefrontal cortex. The part of the brain right behind our foreheads is responsible for higher order functions such as intentional focusing, emotional regulation, impulse control and long-term planning. Scientists call these kinds of tasks executive functioning. The prefrontal cortex undergoes major changes during adolescence, beginning between the ages of 10 and 14, and reaches maturation in early adulthood.

The Limber Limbic System
Another part of the brain undergoing rapid growth in early adolescence is the limbic system, a system of structures nestled deep in the brain. The limbic system is the brain’s reward center that regulates emotion and is hypersensitive to risk-taking. Like the prefrontal cortex, the limbic system will reach maturity in early adulthood. However, the limbic system matures more quickly than the prefrontal cortex. Adolescent researcher Laurence Steinberg summarized this discrepancy in developmental rates as adolescence being like cars with really good accelerators and really weak brakes.

Out of Synch (and That’s OK)
This kind of asynchrony explains why teenagers can show such uneven development when it comes to emotional expression, decision-making, planning and risk-taking. This unevenness is a normal, natural part of development, especially in early adolescence. When you understand the neurological reasons behind these differences, you are equipped to accept—and enjoy—your students for who they are at this moment in time.

Dawn Rundman holds a Ph.D. in developmental psychology from the University of Oregon and began her career as a psychology professor at Concordia University in Chicago. Dawn traded the tenure-track for the publishing life to develop faith formation curriculum for kids and youth. She currently is senior resource developer at Sparkhouse, an ecumenical publisher based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Dawn loves living in the Twin Cities with her musician husband, Jonathan, and their two children Paavo and Svea. She also loves living at the thrilling intersection of faith and science.

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