Acting up

UCL neuroscientists and a London youth theatre group have formed a unique artistic partnership to explore and explain why teenagers are teenagers

by Ben Stevens | UCL Communications

The cast of Brainstorm, onstage at the Park Theatre in north London. Photo: Camilla Greenwell
WHAT DO YOU MEAN?
WHAT DO YOU MEAN WHY AM I LIKE THIS?
I DON’T KNOW WHY.
I JUST AM.
I’M JUST LIKE THIS
OK?

Any parent of a teenager will recognise this sort of response from their nearest and dearest, and the mutual incomprehension that underlies it. These words are actually the opening lines of Brainstorm, a play that premiered in January 2015 at Park Theatre in north London and transferred to the National’s Temporary Theatre for a week-long run in July.

Brainstorm was created by teenage members of Islington Community Theatre along with directors Ned Glasier and Emily Lim and UCL neuroscientists Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and PhD student Kate Mills (UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience).

The play explores how the teenage brain works as a way to help explain, and perhaps defuse, the fraught relationship that exists between teenagers and their parents.

Through an exhilarating mix of dance, multimedia, audience interaction and even a game of hide and seek, it also seeks to overturn the many misconceptions that exist about teenagers and the way that they behave.

Photo: Camilla Greenwell

The cast members are all too aware of how they are stereotyped. Early on in the play, 16-year-old Kassius is our narrator and openly challenges our attitudes towards them:

LOOK AT US.
WHAT DO YOU THINK OF US?
WHAT DO YOU THINK WE ARE THINKING ABOUT RIGHT NOW?
LOOK AT US.
JUDGE US. GO ON, JUDGE US.

Part of the problem, says Kate Mills, is the way that adults, including scientists, talk about adolescents. “For a long time, it was considered a time of stress and tension with parents, and if you look at the language, it’s just so harsh towards adolescents,” she says. “In the past 10 years, I think it’s got better, but there remain these pervasive attitudes in the public and also in science.”

Kate Mills

“Experiments are still formed around these stereotypical behaviours, like risk-taking, rather than the idea that the same neurobiological systems that underlie the increase in risk-taking also underlie increased capacity to learn.”

Mills has always been interested in adolescence as a period of development and when she discovered Sarah-Jayne Blakemore’s research, she contacted her to see if she could join Blakemore’s research group and pursue a PhD.

Blakemore leads the Developmental Group at the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, which uses a variety of behavioural and neuroimaging methods to explore the development of social cognition and decision-making in adolescence. “When I was at university,” she says, “the dogma in the textbooks was that the vast majority of brain development goes on in the first years of life and nothing much changes after mid-childhood. That dogma is completely false.

“Many research groups around the world now work in this field and their combined efforts have revealed that brain development does not stop in childhood but continues throughout adolescence and even into adulthood.

“Teenagers are particularly susceptible to peer influence and their friends play a very big role in their decision-making processes. They will do things with their friends that they would not dream of doing on their own, and we’re trying to understand why that is.”

Giving young people a voice

Islington Community Theatre (ICT) creates professional-standard theatre with young people who come from schools and youth groups who would not otherwise ever get near theatre. “We’re not a social charity,” says Glasier, ICT’s artistic director, “we’re a theatre and we make work. But I also think one of the massive by-products of that is giving young people a platform to speak to the world, in a way that the world doesn’t often offer, and helping young people develop themselves and become confident, engaged adults.”

“If you’re dealing in science involving young brains, what better way to understand young brains than to give them the science and see what comes out?”

He and Emily Lim first came into contact with Blakemore and her research by watching her TED talk, ‘The mysterious workings of the adolescent brain’ (which, at last count, had more than 1.5 million views). At the time, they were looking at developing a piece that would address the question ‘At what point do you become yourself?’ and brain development seemed a logical next step.

So, in early 2013, they emailed Blakemore who put them in touch with Kate Mills and, with her input during rehearsals, Brainstorm was born — albeit in a scratch version.

Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore

At this point, Blakemore saw the show for the first time and, even in this rough form, she knew it was something that she had to be involved with. “It was an incredibly powerful and moving play about the teenage brain,” she says, “and all the more so because it was written and performed by teenagers themselves.”

With Blakemore and Mills’s help, Glasier and Lim secured a grant from the Wellcome Trust to produce a full, professional standard version of Brainstorm.

Glaiser says the bid process itself helped them to refine their ideas for the script.

“Something we spoke about a lot that the Wellcome Trust were interested in is this idea that Sarah-Jayne and Kate are communicating the science to the young people who then take it and reinterpret it and communicate it back to the scientists.

“If you’re dealing in science involving young brains, what better way to understand young brains than to give them the science and see what comes out?”

Like tidying your bedroom

Photograph: Camilla Greenwell

So what do we learn about the teenage brain in Brainstorm? For starters, the cast, using the metaphor of an adolescent’s bedroom, teach us about ‘pruning’. This is a process by which the mess of connections in our brains that we develop from infancy is reduced to those that we use most often — much like a teenager tidies their room and gets rid of anything they don’t need. Well, at least that’s the theory.

“The connections that are lost are, in part, determined by our experiences,” adds Mills, “and those that are saved are the connections that your brain realises are necessary because you’re using them more. Effectively, you can have an active role in shaping how your adult brain is going to look.”

Ned Glasier describes the moment that he alighted on the theme of Brainstorm

Later on in the play, we are introduced to the prefrontal cortex. This brain region is implicated in decision-making and moderating behaviour, so the cast characterise it as ‘the dad’ of the brain, with one of them (Michael) pretending to be his own dad. It is also one of the last parts of the teenage brain to develop.

In contrast, regions within the brain’s limbic system, which are implicated in risk-taking and reward-seeking, are hypersensitive in adolescence. So, in Brainstorm, Noah plays the part of the limbic system by engaging the audience in a live game of hide-and-seek and boasting of once drinking so much Red Bull that he started hallucinating.

“Effectively, you can have an active role in shaping how your adult brain is going to look.”

For Kate Mills, such exuberant behaviour is an important part of the development process. “It’s novelty-seeking and exploring one’s environment, and trying out things that could potentially be a benefit for both the adolescent and the adult that the adolescent will become one day.”

Surely this provides teenagers with a very convenient excuse for when they want to have a wild party and get blind drunk? Sarah-Jayne Blakemore disagrees. “This is a crucial stage of brain development in which we develop a sense of self, and particularly a sense of social self — how other people see us,” she says. “It’s also a stage of development in which exploration and risk-taking are important — the natural propensity for teenagers to take risks must be there for an evolutionary reason.”

Re-enacting real life

What gives Brainstorm its power is that each member of the teenage cast helped to devise the script — often drawing on personal experience.

Yaamin Chowdhury has some of the most raw, yet poignant, scenes in the play as he re-enacts an argument with his mum about buying some chicken for dinner.

His mum tells him: “Your brain is broken. It’s like an adult’s brain, but it doesn’t work properly” and the argument escalates until Yaamin empties a bottle of fizzy water over himself in frustration.

Speaking offstage afterwards, Yaamin explains how it felt drawing on real life. “To perform it on stage was exhilarating; the way it was portrayed (with the water bottle) was near enough how I felt during the actual argument. However, it was quite emotional for both my mum and myself as it felt like I was lashing out at her again, but in a weird way, that’s what made it more meaningful.”

Yaamin Chowdhury. Photograph: Camilla Greenwell

To elicit material like this from the cast members requires sensitivity, says Glasier — though luck also plays its part. “I have a collaborator who works with us called James Blakey and he once said that we make theatre out of the things that fall out of young people’s pockets when we shake them upside down, and I always hold onto that.

“We just try to ‘shake them’ in as many ways as possible, sometimes literally, and certainly with the fizzy exploding drink, that came out of experiments and recording conversations.”

Bringing the cast members into direct contact with scientists also sparked their creativity. “You could put the president of the world in front of young people and they probably wouldn’t be very overawed,” says Glasier, “so at no point were they overawed by these incredibly brilliant, sector-leading scientists. But I think they always knew just how special that opportunity was — to go to UCL and see the MRI scanner and to grapple with these incredibly complex ideas with them as well, and they never stopped asking questions.”

Ned Glasier describes the single biggest ingredient needed to create an authentic piece of drama

Yaamin agrees. “Meeting Kate Mills was by far one of the highlights of the whole Brainstorm experience,” he says. “Having a neuroscientist telling you ‘why teenagers are teenagers’ was fascinating. Her vast knowledge of the teenage brain was the most significant asset to our play. Without her, Brainstorm wouldn’t be as successful as it is now.”

And what does Kate take from the experience? “It’s been such a wonderful opportunity to work with the Islington Community Theatre and with this group of actors. It’s really been beneficial to me as a scientist,” she says. “In the future, I would like to be able to work with adolescents and have them design and carry out an experiment based on the questions that they’re interested in.”

‘Every parent and every teenager should see this’

Following its hugely popular run at Park Theatre, Brainstorm sold out its week-long tour to the National’s Temporary Theatre in July and will be returning there for further performances in March 2016. The BBC has also filmed a 30-minute version of the play as part of its Live From Television Centre series, which is currently available on the iPlayer.

Photograph: Camilla Greenwell

However, Glasier would still like the play to have an even wider reach.
“One audience member said, ‘Every parent and every teenager should see this’, and we think that too. And not just because it’s a play that we made that we’re proud of, but we’ve seen really actively through so many different iterations of the work that it can have a really profound impact on people’s relationships and the happiness of teenagers.

“We know lots of places are interested in supporting the future development of the work, but the thing that’s missing is the money to continue it and to take it to places where teenagers and parents are having really tough times, and where teenagers do think they’re broken.”

In case there was any doubt, Yaamin makes clear what an impact the play and ICT have had on him. “Without ICT, I wouldn’t have thought of theatre or theatre-making as an option, but I’m most definitely interested in that field of work.”

More widely, you hope that the teenagers who see Brainstorm will also listen and appreciate what he says towards the end:

MY BRAIN ISN’T BROKEN.
IT’S LIKE THIS FOR A REASON.
I’M BECOMING WHO I AM.

Ben Stevens is Content Producer (Editor) for UCL Communications.

The 30-minute, TV version of Brainstorm is available to watch until 14 December on the BBC iPlayer.

The full stage version returns to the National Theatre from 29 March–
2 April. Tickets are now available from the
box office.