Thursday, 3 May 2012

Could it be the Limbic System?

Undercover Kofer posted a great video last week. In it, Yaron Yadan,  a former Rosh Yeshiva, and  father of seven, founder of Daat Emet, and the Political Party Or, describes the experiences that led him from his secular youth to Ultra Orthdoxy and back to secularism.

 Yadan explains that he became religious in 1978 at the age of 17. He remained Orthodox for seventeen years until ultimately becoming disillusioned with  Orthodoxy, and convincing his wife to follow him out. At 6:48 in the video, Yadan asks: "So why does a 17.5 year old boy suddenly become religious? Yaron, what happened? That's a question I ask myself to this day, and I still don't have a full clear picture."

Yadan's question reminded me of a lecture on adolescent development that I attended a couple of years ago. The lecturer* spoke of  a "Paradox of Youth": although human beings are at their physical fittest during adolescence, overall mortality increases 200-300 times from childhood to late adolescence. He spoke of a 2006 study of 13000 teen deaths in the USA, which found that 70% of the deaths were preventable: (car accidents, homicides and suicides), and pointed to the surprising nature of that statistic given the $1 billion spent on education prevention programs. I'm not sure if the next statistic was from the same study, but related research suggested 95% of teens understand risks associated with smoking, drinking and driving etc. In other words, knowledge does not translate to behavior.

The lecturer argued that teens understand consequences "except when decisions are made:

  •  within the context of peers
  • in a heightened emotional context
  • spur of the moment
  • involving long term goals versus short term goals."

The above I'm sure is not all that surprising to many of you. Teens are not known for their excellent judgement. As a teen I was certainly no exception. (Not that I am the poster child for excellent decision making now, but there's been some improvement.) In any case, what was interesting in the lecture was the neurological explanation as to why we see such a disconnect between teen reasoning ability and their behavior. I've scanned the relevant slides below.

The limbic system is the part of the brain (to grossly simplify) responsible for emotion. The first slide charts the limbic system development from ages one to twenty one. There are two main peaks: between the ages of  one and three, children show tremendous growth in the limbic system, and thus we see heightened emotional responses (aka " the terrible two's"). Another major peak in limbic system development/activity happens between fifteen and seventeen. The second slide points to the slightly later (between nineteen and twenty one) increased maturation/development of the frontal lobe. (The frontal lobe is the part of the brain responsible for "executive functions" like judgement, planning. And again, to grossly simplify: reasoning ability). Thus, decisions made between the ages of fifteen and seventeen are possibly disproportionately emotionally driven.**

I do not presume to be able to provide Yadan a "full clear picture", but I wonder how much Yadan's age (and therefore the implications re:  limbic system development) played into the decision to make such a drastic lifestyle change.  Yadan speaks about an encounter with a rabbi on a bus that compelled him to explore Orthodoxy, and says [he was] "fertile ground for change". His elaboration of this idea may suggest a philosophical crisis: "I felt that everything was empty . . .  insignificant . . . without purpose". But, as in this post, I believe what he is describing is a psychological state. I am not trying to argue that all BTs  become BTs as a result of limbic system development . . i.e. teenage decision making, but in Yadan's case, the age struck me only because the timing corresponded with the information in the lecture.

Nevertheless, the implications of neurological adolescent development for kiruv purposes are interesting, and I'd be very curious to know whether kiruv (or other missionary) success rates are higher when they target fifteen to seventeen year olds. Maybe NCSY  was on to something when they brought free pizza to my public high school for Hebrew Culture Club, and Aish certainly seemed to know what they were doing when - as if by pulling a lever at a factory - hippie classmates traded in their tie-died shirts for black and white attire within one academic year. Conversely, do people migrate out of Orthodoxy in their teens for similar emotionally-based reasons? (Though I suspect the migration into Orthodoxy is much more culturally facilitated than the migration out, as suggested by Yadan's observation at 3:12: "The process [of becoming a BT] is paradoxical: Because of your critique of secular society, you move to an Orthodox society - which forbids you from thinking critically"). Also, would kiruv strategies change when targeting university aged Jews?  What are your thoughts?


In other semi-related news: I have just interviewed Undercover Kofer as part of the Why Be Orthoprax? interviews, and will be posting his responses to my nosy Yentaness soon. Stay tuned!!

re: Guests Posts - you don't have to wait for an invitation! If you have a story to share on topics related to the blog (Jewish identity/experience/culture), and don't mind my asking lots of questions please send me an e-mail:

I've noted before that I started the blog very much out of interest between the overlap in skepticism, but divergence in lifestyle between my(secular)self and OPers. So, hearing OP experiences/ Guest Posts are of special interest to me.  Having said that, Guests Posts are certainly not limited to OPxy, I'm happy to present a variety of voices, as long as there's some connection to the overall blog theme. (I really should have saved some of the totally unrelated spam guest post requests I've gotten so far: a babysitter, a legal service, a laundromat - fine so that last one kinda is my fault.)

* Lecturer was Peter Chaban. Research he was speaking about was conducted by Dr. Jim Stieben - director of the clinical and developmental neuroscience unit at MEHRI. His lecture started by introducing Some slides used in the lecture are here. (Slides 3, and 9-19 are the most relevant for this post).
** NOTE: I am NOT a psychologist, nor am I pretending to be one. I just saw a connection between Chaban's presentation - as I understood the material - and Yadan's talk. Always happy to stand corrected by/welcome feedback from people who actually are in the field.


  1. Interesting theory - limbic could be a contributing factor. Like with most major life changes, this one probably stems from a complex array of factors that converged to the point where the person made an actual decision - factors like: things going on in personal life, desire for meaning and identity, positive experiences with religious people coupled with negative experiences elsewhere, biological changes, all kinds of things. I'd put "identity" high on the list, especially for someone of 17 years - the desire to go their own way, carve out their own niche as distinct from their parents... That's my "two cents" here.

    1. Great two cents - thank you! Well spent! :)


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