Sunday, 11 January 2015

A Review of 'Brainstorm' - a whirlwind encounter with the teenage brain

I love science and the communication of science in new and interesting ways.  My daughter and I love theatre.  I am a developmental speech and language therapist, researcher and parent.  My daughter is a teenager.  Islington Community Theatre's production 'Brainstorm', a youth theatre drama explaining the neuroscience behind the teenage brain and teenage behaviour looked set to tick all the boxes.

Brainstorm is a collaborative production with Islington Community Theatre, Park Theatre, the Wellcome Trust and the National Theatre Studio.  The result of 2 years of creative theatre making and workshops and with the involvement of leading neuroscientist Professor Sarah-Jane Blakemore (UCL), this looked like an exiting and innovative production.

Each of the teenagers made their entrance onto the stage with a typical teenage exclamation or grunt and proceeded to play with their mobile phones.  We were reminded that many people think of teenagers as a 'crap version of an adult'.  This production was to show the audience that it is not really like that.  Right from the first scene, the importance of the teenage brain in this story was given centre stage.  How the brain develops during the teenage years explains why they behave the way they do.  Members of the audience were informed that teenagers' behaviour is part of their development and is just the way it should be.  The performers pointed out that their brain is 'not broken' but 'beautiful'.

The setting of the production was the teenagers' own bedroom, which acted as a metaphor for many features important to teenage development; an expression of emerging independence and identity, a sanctuary and an illustration of the brain itself.  Another key prop in the production was the mobile phone, a device to which this generation of teenagers appears to be permanently attached.  Images from the cast's mobile phone screens were projected up onto the wardrobe to illustrate parts of the message.  This was an innovative way of communicating the story through a medium which is a fundamental part of the modern western teenager's identity.

The cast did a great job of explaining the neuroscience behind the teenage brain, behaviour and development.  Our brains are made up of no less than around 85 billion brain cells called neurones, which are connected together with synapses.  Teenagers have many more connections than adults so everything is connected together.  This was illustrated in the drama as the teenager's own bedrooms, messy and chaotic, full of everything.  As we develop, the connections or synapses that we use are reinforced and the ones that we don't die away, a process known as pruning.  The bedroom analogy was used again to illustrate pruning in the brain as the teenagers found a special place for their really useful or loved items, and cleared the less useful stuff away.

Other features of brain development also explained teenage behaviour.  The prefrontal cortex 'just behind your forehead' is the part of the brain responsible for reason and rational behaviour.  This part of the brain takes a long time to develop and is not fully developed in the teenage brain. The limbic system, that is the part of the brain responsible for emotions, risk taking and reward, is highly sensitive during the teenage brain.  The performers illustrated this as the limbic system shouting at them to take risks and handing out sweets, while the underdeveloped prefrontal cortex whispers in the background 'can you hear me?'

The production explored key aspects of teenage life, hopes and dreams for the future, relationships with friends and parents and the teenagers' emerging sense of self; 'you want me to be you but I am not you'.      The performers gave a candid account of themselves and their experiences which was both life affirming and moving.  A particularly powerful scene was introduced as 'brain scan', and involved the performers answering questions about themselves by turning on a lamp.  The anonymity of responses the randomly placed lamps gave enabled the teenagers to be open in their answers to challenging questions such as 'have you lied to your parents today?', 'does the thought of sex scare you?' and 'have you ever been drunk?'

The confidence, energy and potential of the teenager was demonstrated through the voices of these young actors.  Their vulnerability and need for understanding and support from their parents was also clearly communicated, particularly in the final scene where each performer shows a written message of love to their parents, something that they 'could never say'.  One key theme that was reinforced throughout the play was that brain development is not a 'one-off'' event, like starting your period.  It takes a long time.  'That's important.'

This production was a truly unique way to communicate the neuroscience of the teenage brain to a wider audience.  Using the voices of teenagers themselves made it even more powerful.  They understood and owned the science behind their own development.  The combination of these two aspects of communication resulted in a clear, powerful and relevant message.

I have always had an interest in the theatre and how it can be used to inform and educate.  I am also very interested in exploring ways in which scientific discoveries can be communicated to a wider audience (for more of this see my previous blogs on my experience of the Cheltenham Science Festival).  Living on the south coast my family is a long way from   Finsbury Park in North London.  I wanted to see this production for myself, but given that my daughter loves drama, I thought it might be an opportunity for her too to be exposed to a new field of science through a medium she loves so she and I travelled to North London for the Saturday matinee performance.  Brainstorm did not disappoint, in fact it far exceeded expectations.  I was surprised by the sheer energy of the cast, young people aged between 13 and 17, giving graphic, emotional but authentic portrayals of their experiences as teenagers.

It would be amazing to see such an innovative performance given a wider audience, perhaps at a major UK science festival such as Cheltenham or the British Science Festival.  Whatever the future of this venture, however, one thing is clear; Islington Community Theatre should be proud of a truly unique production.

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