A radical reframing of our understanding of the teenage mind, that explains typically ridiculed behaviours such as risk-taking, emotional instability and heightened self-consciousness as outward signs of great transformation, has won the prestigious Royal Society prize for science book of the year.
Two thousand years since Socrates said that teenagers have “bad manners, contempt for authority, show disrespect for elders and love chatter in the place of exercise”, Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain by neuroscientist Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore has scooped the £25,000 prize on Monday night. Blakemore is the fourth woman to win the prize over its 30-year history, and also the fourth in a row, following Cordelia Fine for her book Testosterone Rex last year, Andrea Wulf in 2016 for The Invention of Nature and Gaia Vince for Adventures in the Anthropocene in 2015.
In the book, Blakemore demonstrates how the human brain develops during adolescence and how previously unknown details of this process mean society’s treatment of the often-maligned group should change. Self-absorption, hyper-sensitivity and risk-taking, she explains, are all reasonable responses when the biological purpose of adolescence is the creation of a sense of self.
She has argued that GCSEs impose enormous stress on teenagers during a period of huge neurological change, and recommends that they should go to bed later and start school later, as evidence shows the brain’s circadian rhythm is knocked out of kilter during puberty. She also shows that the brain’s levels of white and grey matter continue to shift long after our teen years, meaning the period of human adolescence could be considered to last until our 20s and 30s.
Judges for the prize praised Blakemore’s inclusion of her own laboratory research in the book, conducted as professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London, working in what she calls “a young science”. They also praised Blakemore for examining how stressful experiences during her formative years may have shaped her own development; she grew up under police protection because her father, the scientist Sir Colin Blakemore, received death threats from animal rights groups and was once targeted by a mail bomber.
“The biggest emotion I had was, I was so embarrassed,” Blakemore told the Guardian in August, about her reaction at the time. “At school there would be bomb scares. Everybody would know it was possibly targeted towards us, and that was just devastatingly embarrassing.”
Professor Dame Frances Ashcroft, chair of judges and professor of physiology at Oxford, said Inventing Ourselves was “completely captivating” and “truly a book that everyone should read”. She said it stood out “because it addresses an important but somewhat neglected area that affects every one of us”.
“She’s given us a different view of the teenager and corrected all the myths that people have started out with. It is a very important book because she’s teaching us to look at teenagers in a completely different way. These are people in a period of great creativity, not just moody individuals,” she told the Guardian.
“The best science writing helps us to look at ourselves and our world in new ways, and does this by combining compelling storytelling with scientific depth and detail,” said Professor Brian Cox, the Royal Society’s professor for public engagement in science. “This book not only has all of these qualities, but also has something to offer every reader – whether you are a teenager, parent of a teenager, or just interested in understanding your former teenage self.”
Inventing Ourselves was chosen from a six-book shortlist that spanned the sciences, including Lucy Cooke’s examination of zoological myths, The Unexpected Truth About Animals; Daniel M Davis’s study of the immune system, The Beautiful Cure; Liquid by the 2014 winner Mark Miodownik; Hello World, Hannah Fry’s study of artificial intelligence and algorithms; and Simon Winchester’s book on precision engineers, Exactly.
Joining Professor Ashcroft as judges were Dr Leigh Fletcher, associate professor in planetary sciences; Peter Florence, director and co-founder of the Hay festival; scientist and broadcaster Vivienne Parry; and Greg Williams, editor of Wired magazine.
Over its 30-year history, the Royal Society prize has previously been won by the likes of Stephen Hawking, Jared Diamond and Bill Bryson.