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Brain coach entertains while enlightening

Belmont crowd learns some secrets behind the teenage brain
Just what is going on in the teenage brain? Longtime educator Gary Anaka stopped by Belmont secondary recently to explain it to anyone who was interested.

Put your left foot in the air out in front of you.

Now move it in a clockwise direction, making little circles with it.

Put your left hand in the air while you’re doing this, but keep looking down at your rotating foot while drawing the number six with your raised hand.

See what happened there? Yeah. The human brain is weird.

This was one of the many entertaining exercises Gary Anaka put his audience through one night last week in the gymnasium at Belmont secondary, during his presentation entitled “The New Science of the Teenage Brain.”

The approximately 200 people in attendance – made up mostly of parents of teenagers, with a smattering of teachers and a few students – were up and down in their seats all night, laughing, groaning, shouting, high-fiving and following along with Anaka, as he made them perform all kinds of movements to explain and reinforce his message.

Anaka taught in high school environments for 32 years in both Canada and Australia. He’s presented professional development workshops to tens of thousands of teachers, support staff, students and parents in more than 50 school districts in B.C. and other provinces and is the author of the book Your Magical Brain: How it Learns Best.

His message is an important one, and it’s one we’ve heard over and over again throughout history – so much so that it’s become a cliché.

“If you don’t use it, you lose it.”

The difference between the cliché we’re all familiar with and the message Anaka was sharing is that his message is now backed up by neuroscience.

The development of the prefrontal cortex – the three dime-wide sheet of brain matter right behind your forehead – doesn’t begin until the age of 11, according to Anaka.

This area of the brain is what controls and regulates mood, cognitive behaviour (the ability to retain information) and decision making and moderates social behaviour.

That’s the crux of the issue, Anaka says, when trying to figure out what’s going on in the teenage brain. They have an underdeveloped – and currently developing – prefrontal cortex and they have approximately 15 years to make it into what it will be for the rest of their lives, so it’s important to work it out. It’s also why, he says, we see teenagers “being wacky,” making bad decisions, rebelling and having mood swings.

The key ingredient in growing a good prefrontal cortex, Anaka says, is dopamine.

Dopamine is a hormone produced within the body that plays an important role in motor control, motivation and cognition, so stimulating the production of this natural chemical is imperative to developing a high-functioning brain during the maturation of the prefrontal cortex.

The way to do this, Anaka explains to the crowd, is to build cognitive capacity, or memory, by engaging in repetition, avoiding social isolation to build social skills and getting daily exercise.

He adds teenage brains, and everyone else’s, need to be engaged in what’s happening to retain the information. In order to be engaged, thus producing dopamine, what’s happening must be interesting for them, so finding things that will engage them is also important, as long as those things aren’t video games or other screen-based activities.

Because, as Anaka says, “If your bum is numb, so is your brain."

For more information on Anaka or his brain coaching, including a schedule of future workshops and presentations, head over to