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Temporary Insanity - part 1

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Boys Town's Patrick D. Friman, Ph.D. discusses teens and their behavior. (Part One)

This presentation is to a Mom who came up to me just before we started and said that shortly after she left her house her 15-year-old daughter took her car and picked up her 15-year-old friend and they're out in the city marauding right now...a real life problem. I presume that when it comes time for questions she's going to have one and probably has one right now.

Thank you all for being here. I'm delighted that you're here and I'm delighted to be here with you. Before we get started with the formal part of the evening, I'd like to play a game. The game is from Sesame Street and it's called find the one that doesn't belong. Let me give you a hint. I'm a child and family psychologist and I don't have a child or a family. I never have and I'm never going to.

I don't want to mess up my theories with fact and truth be told, I don't like to touch poop all that well. As I understand it, to be a decent parent, you do have to touch poop from time to time. Forgive me if I don't shake your hand later if you're a parent. The one that doesn't belong, presumably, would be the only person in the room who's not a parent and that's me. What am I doing down in front of the room as a big time expert?

I mentioned that and the folks that work at Boys Town don't like me to emphasize it but I want to make sure that you know what kind of expertise I actually have. I don't have parenting expertise, not the kind that counts. I've studied parenting. I've read about it. I've done research on it. I've worked with parents. I know parents. I had parents but none of that qualifies me as an expert because I haven't done it.

Whatever I have to say about parenting tonight, I recommend you take with a grain of salt. Examine what I have to say carefully. Scrutinize it carefully and take it in cautiously. There is something that I do know and that is teenagers. I happen to have experience there because I've read about them. I've worked with them. I've studied them. I've done research on them. More importantly, I was one so I know a teenager. I know a teenager, the phenomenon of the teenager, from the good side and the bad side.

I have some plaques and memorabilia on my wall in my office, honors and awards, but there's one particular plaque that I'm actually most proud of. It's a summons from the Cascade County Courthouse. I was born there and the summons is for me. It was made to me by my probation officers, Bill Avery and Howard Pelage, when I was a 17-year-old kid.

Next to it, two weeks from now, will be another plaque. I found it in some stuff I was looking through when I was looking for a picture of my mom. I found the notice from the Great Falls Central High School in Great Falls, Montana expelling me when I was a junior. I'm going to have that framed and put that on my wall because I think those two documents fit very nicely alongside of all my honors and awards and degrees. They represent that I know both sides of the teenager.

In this talk I am going to talk about the brain for a while and I won't spend a long time on brain anatomy but I have to spend some time on the brain anatomy because I'm going to pin some of the things that you're concerned about in your adolescence on the brain and its underdevelopment in certain sections. Then, I'm going to characterize brain development problems as forms of temporary insanity. I'll talk about three forms and then I'm going to move from there into taking your questions. I've actually found in talks like this, that's the most interesting and informative part of the evening because I think parents actually like to hear what's going on with other parents.

I know we have one question already. I talked about that and I'm looking forward to addressing it. I know there will be multiple other questions and that will fill out the major portion of our evening. Let me just start with the brain.

This is the limbic system. The limbic system is the emotional part of the brain meaning it's responsible for all of our emotional energy. It's responsible for our passions. It's responsible for our impulses. It's responsible for our good feelings and our bad feelings. It's a primitive part of the brain and in adolescence it's fully developed. In adults, it's fully developed and that's part of the problem because the part of the brain that governs the limbic system is underdeveloped in teenagers and it's fully developed in adults.

The energy that the limbic system is responsible for is dominantly negative, meaning it's the emotions associated with danger to our organism... it's fight or flight. It's got a threat detection system that's very well developed in everybody in this room. How do I know that? Because you're here. This threat detection system has been part of the species from a long time ago and I know because you're here that your ancestors and my ancestors had one that worked really, really well.

Way, way, way, back then, when they heard a little rustle in the brush, they scampered up the trees and hid out or got weapons and attacked whatever it was that was after them. Their friends that didn't do that, didn't go on to have families but had families that had families that had families, resulting in them being here. But you're here, they're not and that's why. It's very, very useful. Those negative emotions that are part of the limbic system have been very useful historically, but here's the problem.

The system is still very sensitive to threat. Only there isn't as much threat in our environment now as there was way, way, way, way back then but the brain doesn't know that. The brain hasn't developed in a way that accommodates the safeties of modern culture so it now responds to threats that are perceived but not necessarily threats to survival. They're more threats to identify. Threats to who we think we are...insults, criticisms, political opinions that differ from yours and mine. All of that is picked up by the limbic system as if it were a threat and responded to in kind.

I could spend all evening talking about us and that but I'm here to talk about teenagers. This is the thing that's important to know. What I've just said is that the limbic system is overly sensitive to threats to identity and the teenager is an organism whose identity is fragile. Thus, it's much, much more susceptible to threat and in the teenager is a very well-developed threat detection system and emotional system that is over responsive to threat anyway. They're oversensitive to threat and that is part of the reason why they can seem so irrational at times.

The limbic system isn't only responsible for negative emotion. It's responsible for positive emotion also. For example, if you've ever been head-over-heels in love, it's responsible for that. I don't know how you feel about being head-over-heels in love. If the movies or music were any indication, it's something that we all want more than anything else but personally, I don't want that. I've been head-over-heels in love a few times in my life and I love my wife but I do not want to be head-over-heels again.

The love I have for my wife is kind of steady and it has kind of a steady state and it's on a gentle incline. That's exactly the way I want it because the head-over-heels in love emotional state is a state of insanity. I presume that everybody in this room has had that experience and when you have that experience, you'll abandon your friends. You'll abandon your job. You'll move from the place that you've lived all your life in order to be close to your beloved. You don't have many thoughts for the future.

All you have is the thought for your beloved. That's the kind of effect the limbic system has on us. It's all about now. It wants what it wants and it wants it now. The limbic system isn't just responsible for negative states. It's responsible for positive states too and both states tend to resemble insanity. If, in a teenager who has fallen head-over-heels in love, it goes badly then you have two kinds of insanity you're creating. You have the kind of insanity associated with being head-over-heels in love and then you have the kind of insanity that's associated with being broken up.

I remember the first experience I had falling deeply in loving was when I was about 20. I fell in love with a girl from Butte, Montana and I was just crazy in love. I wasn't very good at it so within a couple of months; I don't know what went wrong. We had a couple of arguments. Maybe I was defensive or jealous. I can't remember. She broke up with me and I was at college. I quit school. Just like that. I didn't withdraw from school. That would be too sensible and too sane. I just left school. I left Missoula where I was going to school and went home to Great Falls. I was hanging around town for about four days with a good friend of mine, Lloyd Birmingham a rodeo cowboy, and decided to rodeo rather than go to school.

One afternoon I went over to his house. We were hanging around in the basement and I went upstairs to get something from the kitchen. His Dad was up working on the computer... or working on maybe a typewriter... a typewriter at the kitchen table. He noticed me there and he said "Hey Pat. What are you doing here? I thought you were away at school?" His name was Bill Birmingham. I said "Bill, well, I was away at school but Margaret who’s my girlfriend..." (She was from Butte,  maybe another McKay family, anyway... "she broke up with me and so I quit school." He took a long time to respond. He just looked at me and he said "Well Pat, I guess you showed her."

I woke up. I was totally limbic during those days that occurred after she broke up with me. I was in a fugue state. I wasn't thinking very consciously. I wasn't thinking very rationally but this man says this thing to me and it registered. It was like it woke up the rational part of my brain and I began to see what I had done. I began to see the mistake I had made. I hot-footed it back to school, got back into class and ended the quarter with a C- average but passing. What would've been a disaster, limbically based, turned out to be a complete turnaround because an adult came along and very wisely and very astutely momentarily gave me access to this part of the brain, the purple part.

See that purple piece there? That is the governor. It's called the prefrontal cortex or the cerebral cortex. I think of it as a CEO, the general, the manager or the governor. It's responsible for managing the emotions in the limbic system. If it's not on the job then emotions rule and what you have is adolescence. If it's on the job then things run pretty well and what you have is what we have in this room because your presence here isn't a limbic event. It's a prefrontal event. You had to override desires to do other things and impulses that are associated with the idea of having to come out here in order to be here just on the off chance a guy who's never had a child will tell you something about parenting. Good luck on that.

That's a rational decision. That's a prefrontal decision. The problem is that in adolescence that part of the brain isn't fully developed and so what they have is an inexperienced, underprepared manager for a very, very busy part of the organism. It's like having a CEO that doesn't know the business, running the business. Why the lopsided development in that way? Why wouldn't the rational part be lopsided and the emotional part take time to develop? Wouldn’t that be so much easier for us? I thought about this and I decided the reason probably has to do with a message from God. God and his design of the species designed this lopsided dimension of the adolescent brain in order to communicate to us that sex was never intended to be fun and this is your punishment for thinking that it is.

Let me move from the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex to types of temporary insanity that I've invented. Now, I'm a shrink, and by virtue of my profession, I'm imbued with the authority of identifying mental illness in people that come to me as clients. A lot of the people that come to me as clients are teenagers. What I recognize in their behavior is a form of insanity. I think a 15-year-old girl taking mom's car shortly after mom leaves the house when the 15-year-old girl doesn't even have a driver’s license and then picking up another 15-year-old girl who also doesn't have a driver’s license and driving around town is a little bit on the insane side. I'm a little reluctant to characterize that behavior as true mental illness.

Yet when that kind of a problem is presented to me in my clinic I'm pretty much forced to look at it that way. That is, until I invented these categories because I think that kind of behavior fits in these much better. What I've done is invented my own kind of categories for temporary mental illness. I don't have to use the diagnostic and statistical manual for the American Psychiatric Association to classify the kinds of things that are on your mind for the most part. I use this system to classify things that are on my mind and your mind and I think it fits much better. I can't do them all because I want to get your questions, but I'll just do a couple.

I'll start off with RAD. RAD is “Rationality in Absentia Disorder”. Rationality, you know what that means. What does "in absentia" mean? It means "not there." This is very hard to grasp. It's not there. If you go looking for it, it isn't going to be there because when kids are affected or infected with RAD and then you find out about it, you want to know a rational reason for whatever they did. I'm just telling you, it's not there. It's just hard to grasp. How can you yourself diagnose this condition? It's pretty easy.

There has to be something that the teenager did that you find nutty. Let's say they microwave a cricket. You go to the microwave and you find the desiccated carcass in the microwave and you have questions. One question is “Why did you do that?” And the other question might be “What were you thinking?” If you get that far, you don't need to go any farther. I have an answer for you. That's RAD. That's rationality in absentia. I will share with you the most honest possible answers to those two questions for that event or the event that might be in front of you.

Why did you do that? "Because I felt like it." What were you thinking? "I wasn't thinking." That's the truth.  You don't like the truth. You don't accept the truth. At that point this is the nasty news for you all. You take them to lying school because they recognize that you will not accept the truth or, if you actually are in the presence of the truth, you will punish them because that truth will not stand. There must or should be a rational reason. As if they had a rational reason for microwaving that cricket it would make it all right. What could it possibly be? "We were doing an experiment in school about the desiccation of flesh over time. I didn't have time to do the experiment so I used the microwave."

There's no possible explanation that's going to stand. It's just that we are rational and in those moments they are not and we don't accept the truth and they recognize that we won't accept the truth so they make something up. Then we punish them for lying. Worse than that, we get the idea that there's something wrong with their character because they lie to us under those kinds of circumstances and we don't take into account the fact that we're actually programming them to lie because we don't like the truth because the truth is unacceptable to us rational beings. That's RAD.

What do adolescents have against mailboxes? They don't have anything against mailboxes. You might think they hate mailboxes because that's where their grades come. Their grades don't come in mailboxes. Their grades come online, so they don't have that against mailboxes. Why do they mow them down with the family car? They mow them down with the family car because they feel like it. What were they thinking when they mowed them down? I guarantee you they weren't thinking about very much at the time other than how incredibly fun it's going to be to mow the thing down.

If an adolescent and a car full of fellow adolescents is driven down the block and mow down a series of mailboxes, when they get to the end of that block, that's as high as they're ever going to be in life. They are so thrilled. They are just on the verge of wetting themselves. The kind of thrill that they have as a result of this is one that is occasioned by very few things in life. You know when they say "You just don't understand." This is one of the reasons they say that. They are right. You don't. Or, if you thought you could, you stop yourself because you don't want to understand that kind of behavior because it's so profoundly unacceptable to a rational person.

What do young adolescents have against cars? Why do they throw snowballs at them? They don't have anything against cars. It's just an incredible thrill for a teenager to throw a snowball at a car. They throw snowballs at cars because the cars just might stop which is an incredible thrill. If somebody gets out of that car, it's even more of a thrill. If they happen to chase them then that is as good as it gets. That's RAD.

I'll give you one of my own examples. I was at the county fair at Great Falls. I was with my girlfriend and we are 15. It was a nice evening. It's a summer evening in Great Falls in August. It doesn't get any better than that. It's a great state fair and I had a little bit of money. I won my girlfriend a little tiny Teddy Bear by throwing little tiny rings on Coke bottles. It probably cost me 10 bucks to get a $1 Teddy Bear, but she was happy. I was happy. I got her some cotton candy. I have a corn dog. We're walking down the midway and about a hundred yards away, I see in front of the beer tent, an American Indian fighting a Caucasian. These are young men fighting.

I don't know why what happened next happened. I really don't. I didn't know either person. I didn't know anybody that was standing around. I dropped my corn dog and ran full out and hit the American Indian in the face on a full run as hard as I could and knocked him about 10 yards back onto the ground. That American Indian was a champion golden gloves boxer. He jumped up off the ground about as fast as Dracula rises out of a coffin when the sun goes down and I realized that the jig was up for me. I thought the only opportunity I would have to save myself was to get him on the ground so I tackled him and got him on the ground. He was way stronger than me.

He was throwing me around. He finally got me on my back and he's about to give me exactly what I have coming when I saw four shiny pairs of boots walk up. I have never been happier to see police and handcuffs in my life. My next-door neighbor, then Lieutenant Clayton Bain of the Great Falls Police, actually arrested me on the spot and put me into police headquarters at the state fair and began to question me about why I was fighting this American Indian. I had to make up a reason because I knew he wouldn't accept the one that was the truth because I fundamentally didn't know why I had done that.

Like I said, I didn't know this man. I didn't know anybody standing around. I had no rational reason for this happening. To this day, I can look back and say “I don't know what was going on there.” I made up something for Clayton. I told him that a bunch of Indians had been marauding around the midway. This was one of them and he was picking on a guy which was a total fabrication just to get me off the hook. Which is what happens when adolescents get caught in RAD. They don't have an explanation that will satisfy you or me, so they will make something up.

The cerebral cortex, the one I talked about, the CEO, the manager, the governor, has another job. Guess what it is. Lawyer. Because by the time you catch them... that limbic system that was so activated… it's now dying down and they're kind of rational now and that rational part of them recognizes you're not going to accept the truth so it activates their lawyer properties and they invent stories. This is designed from what a lawyer is supposed to do when somebody's accused of something... get them off. It will come up with whatever it can to get the kid off. I just want you to recognize that in the lying part of this, we are active participants, not passive. Am I making any sense here?