The New Science of the Teenage Brain landed in my mailbox last week – the cover story of National Geographic’s October issue and the top of my Sunday reading list. After being blown-away by its findings, I shared it with a friend – a therapist who works with teens.
“You should read this fantastic article. Maybe teens aren’t inexplicable; maybe they’re amazing.”
She replied, “I know – a lot of people have mixed feelings towards the teen years – confusion, frustration, anxiety, excitement, trepidation… but I find teens absolutely fascinating!”
I’ve summarized my favorite parts of the article here and provided a link to the full article at the end. I’d love to hear from teens and parents of teens alike.
The article describes two recent, major steps scientists have taken in understanding the teenage brain. The first step uncovered complex physiological changes taking place during these years, and the second considered the teen brain in the light of evolutionary theory.
From early written history, up through the 1990s, the teenage brain has been characterized as being clouded by dark forces, causing teens to behave in irrational, inexplicable, even dangerous ways. Familiar phrases immediately jump to mind: What in the world were you thinking? Why would she ever do something like that? In what universe did that seem like a good idea?
The presiding theory followed that during childhood (ages 2-11) the brain grew and developed in critical areas like motor skills, language, reasoning ability and memory – functions largely governed by regions at the back of the brain. The brain got bigger, smarter and finished becoming a fully formed brain.
However, in the 1990s, detailed brains scans made possible by new imaging technology showed a massive re-organization and re-modeling taking place during the teen years and even into the early twenties (ages 12-25). This occurs largely in the frontal lobes, completing a wave of development that starts at the back of the brain with the most basic functions and passes through to the front where more complicated memory, decision-making and experiential integration takes place.
This shows that the teenage brain is still a huge work-in-progress. A few scientific specifics: First, the axons (the brain’s signal senders) become more insulated with myelin (the brain’s white matter) boosting transmission speed. Then, the dendrites (the signal receivers) branch further, and the synapses (the signals’ intersections) both grow stronger and are pruned for efficiency. Next, corpus callosum thickens – this stem connects the left and right hemispheres and is critical for advanced brain function. Additionally, stronger links develop between the hippocampus (the brain’s memory directory) and the frontal areas (our decision making scale), allowing us to consider much more complex situations and outcomes. Okay… wow! That’s a lot of stuff happening in a relatively short amount of time, but the bottom line is that the brain becomes much faster and more efficient; it becomes capable of integrating much more complicated information and decision matrices.
Teens must contend with all this re-wiring while participating in countless new experiences that they have little context for. No wonder they confuse and confound adults; they likely confuse and confound themselves. They are trying to separate from a world created by their parents and enter a world designed by their peers while their body is changing daily and their brain is undergoing a massive re-organization. Researcher and professor of psychiatry Beatriz Luna, cited in the article, draws the analogy between this “neural gawkiness” to teens’ “physical awkwardness” that they are experiencing at the same. That’s a full plate.
In the 2000s, scientists examined the teenage brain in light of evolutionary theory and found it to be highly adapted and perfectly wired for the most difficult and critical task humans undertake – moving out of the house, transitioning from a world that was created by their predecessors and in which they are provided for by their parents and entering a world that is constructed by their peers and in which they must provide for themselves.
Two key traits that peak during the teen years are love-of-thrill and risk-taking. As the author states, “[Natural] selection is hell on dysfunctional traits.” If these teen traits that we bemoan are so awful, they would have been quickly trimmed in an evolutionary cycle. Researchers found that teens aren’t oblivious to or disrespectful of consequences, but that their risk-reward scale is different than for adults. During the teen years, the brain’s sensitivity to dopamine and oxytocin heighten. They learn quickly, place an extraordinary weight on reward and actively seek social situations. The author points out that some brain-scan studies suggest that teen brains react to peer exclusion similarly to how it responds to threats to physical safety or food supply. In this light, social rejection becomes a threat to existence. Teens also excel at risk-taking, a trait that can put them in harmful situations but that is ultimately essential to the human endeavor and brings them the skills and experience to step out of the nest.
• • • •
In my childhood, I regularly spent many summers at sleep-away camp. One summer, at age 11 or 12, I had a very short haircut and a very tall, straight figure. After swimming in the lake one afternoon, I had changed into dry clothes and was combing my wet hair at the mirror in the entrance to the cabin. I can remember each detail, every color, how I was standing and what I was wearing. Two girls walked past, caught a glimpse of me in the doorway, and raced away shrieking “Boy on the hill, boy on the hill!” I was devastated. As a very shy, self-conscious tween, I already had a hard time making new friends. This social rejection seared right through me. Now I know a bit better why.
About 8 years ago, I was directing an all-girls camp that took place at a boarding school, in dorms. Around eleven at night, early in the session, a counselor tapped on my door. Four girls, all returning campers and, yes, great girls, had been playing around in their room and swinging from the water sprinkler pipe on the ceiling, as if it were a monkey bar. The pipe dislodged and, miraculously, caught on the edge of the metal doorframe, saving the camp from evacuation and the historical buildings from millions of dollars in water damage. The girls were contrite and completely forthcoming with information. My gut reaction was what were they thinking? In the course of our calm conversation I asked Did you know this is fire equipment? “Yes.” Did you remember that playing with the fire equipment could compromise everyone’s safety and might cause you to be kicked out of camp? “Yes.” These were smart girls, and they were aware of the consequences – they had simply placed elevated priority on the reward, the fun of hanging out with their friends and being a smidge adventurous. (They were not kicked out; they responded to their mis-step with sincerity and maturity.)
The New Science of the Teenage Brain is expertly written and the research and findings are fascinating. I can re-evaluate past experiences with this new information and I have more understanding and empathy for the trials of the teen years. Mostly, however, I have a great deal more respect for what teens are grappling with. I am excited for them, in awe of them, and find a great honor in having a chance to work with them.
My older daughter, too, will soon start this transition – this massive re-wiring. As her mother, I can be a consistent presence and guiding hand while giving her the freedom to test the waters of experiences and social circles. She’ll have inclinations and interests I may not agree with. She will both aggravate and amaze me. I will learn when to step forward and when to step back, and I will trust that she is a bright, inquisitive child who is learning how to take her own steps.
The New Science of the Teenage Brain, by David Dobbs
National Geographic, October 2011
full article online