teenage brain

Teenage brain. Harvard Magazine

The latest imaging studies of the teenage brain show that it undergoes huge changes as young people approach their twenties. During this period, the brain doesn’t grow in size but rather it seems to significantly rewire itself in readiness for the major changes that lie ahead. 

During this process the brain is actually preparing young people for that most perilous of steps: ‘flying the nest’, in nature this is also a dangerous time for any living creature.  It is a time when teenagers need courage and the confidence to take risks in a ‘leap of faith’ as they strike out for adult independence.

The result is that they are more likely to behave emotionally or follow their ‘gut’ feelings (sometimes with disastrous results).  They use emotions rather than their reasoning (prefrontal cortex) to process information and that can lead to a decrease in reasoned thinking and an increase in impulsiveness; hence risky behaviour and the belief that they are invincible.

How the teenage brain works:

  • They can exercise poor judgment: finding it difficult to think through consequences
  • They engage in increased risk-taking and inappropriate behaviour
  • They act on impulse and emotions rather than logical and practicality
  • They can misunderstand subtle social cues: this can lead to miscommunication
  • They can misinterpret expectations and misread facial expressions
  • They have a limited attention span and a different concept of time
  • They lack the inhibitions of adulthood

Tips to help unlock the teenage brain:

  1. Young people still need close supervision, especially when in groups
  2. Be a parent/teacher, not a friend; a guide with a steady, loving hand
  3. Be on hand to provide protection if they need it but have the ability to stand back
  4. Make time to listen to what young people have to say; offer advice when asked
  5. Guide them and give them experience of communal responsibilities (chores around the house, involvement in an activity where they have to think of others)
  6. Encourage them to listen to their ‘inner selves’ rather than get carried away with the crowd and the moment
  7. Make sure they understand that every action has a consequence, big or small; the bigger the risk, the bigger the possible negative consequence.

A recent study carried out at Temple University in America, Peers increase adolescent risk taking by enhancing activity in the brain’s reward circuitry, found that young teenagers ran 40% more yellow lights and had 60% more crashes when they knew their friends were watching. This study found a connection between the regions of the brain associated with reward and the affect this has on young people when they are with their peers and friends.

It seems that when friends are around the brain’s reward system over rides the usual warning signals about risk, tipping the balance toward the reward. This could also account for why young people crave each other’s company and ‘friends’ are as important to them as the air they breathe.

Laurence Steinberg, one of the study’s authors and psychology professor at Temple said “We think we’ve uncovered one very plausible explanation for why adolescents do a lot of stupid things with their friends that they wouldn’t do when they are by themselves.”

In a recent article for National Geographic David Dobbs wrote that teenagers are “exquisitely sensitive, highly adaptable creature(s) wired almost perfectly for the job of moving from the safety of home into the complicated world outside.”

“This is the most difficult thing that humans do, as well as the most critical—not just for individuals but for a species that has shown an unmatched ability to master challenging new environments. In scientific terms, they are quite possibly the most fully, crucially adaptive human beings around. Without them, humanity might not have so readily spread across the globe.”

Dr Michael C Nagel is an Associate Professor in the School of Science and Education at the University of the Sunshine Coast. He teaches and researches in the areas of cognition, behaviour and learning and human development and early learning. He will be describing new developments in our understanding of the teenage brain at the Generation Next Mental Health & Wellbeing seminars being held around Australia in 2012
Register at Mental Health & Wellbeing of Young People.

Writer Helen Splarn. Editor Dr Ramesh Manocha.
Source: “Peers increase adolescent risk taking by enhancing activity in the brain’s reward circuitry” Jason Chein, Dustin Albert, Lia O’Brien, Kaitlyn Uckert, Laurence Steinberg.  DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2010.01035.x. National Geographic