Mapping Teen Brains

Is the teen brain a novice, a work-in-progress, or perfectly adapted for the tasks of its age?

Last week Beautiful Brains, a National Geographic feature by David Dobbs, perked a few ears toward the latest on this ongoing debate about the teen brain. For a quick review, since the 1990s neuroscientists have been exploring via full-brain scans whats going on as the adolescent brain grows. In essence, it is doing more maturing than actual growingneurological pruning and shaping leads to something resembling a network and wiring upgrade.

A few highlights from this new piece relevant to youth workers:

1. Teens use different parts of their brains to assess risks and act on them.

Compared with adults, teens tended to make less use of brain regions that monitor performance, spot errors, plan, and stay focusedareas the adults seemed to bring online automatically.

So while risk may not necessarily be the same as impulsivity, we need to understand that teens are very literally not thinking the way we do about situations as adults. They may be looking at the same problem, but they are using different parts of their brain to make decisions about it.

2. Thrill-seeking isnt all bad for teen brains.

Sometimes its what gets kids out of the house.

Impulsivity generally drops throughout life, starting at about age 10, but this love of the thrill peaks at around age 15. And although sensation seeking can lead to dangerous behaviors, it can also generate positive ones: The urge to meet more people, for instance, can create a wider circle of friends, which generally makes us healthier, happier, safer, and more successful.

3. The payoff is what counts

Teens give more weight to reward than adults, so while they dont weigh the consequences of risk less, they take more risks because of the perceived rewards. Especially social rewards. This helps explain teens preference of being with other teens over being with adults. In fact, they (we all) are hard-wired to seek social connection. Dobbs notes:

This supremely human characteristic makes peer relations not a sideshow but the main show. Some brain-scan studies, in fact, suggest that our brains react to peer exclusion much as they respond to threats to physical health or food supply. At a neural level, in other words, we perceive social rejection as a threat to existence. Knowing this might make it easier to abide the hysteria of a 13-year-old deceived by a friend or the gloom of a 15-year-old not invited to a party.

4. Teen brains are well-suited for teenagers.

Rather than pitching teenager brains as underdeveloped, more recent studies cast the teen less as a rough draft than as an exquisitely sensitive, highly adaptable creature wired almost perfectly for the job of moving from the safety of home into the complicated world outside. Theres some good fodder there for discussion.

You might also be interested in the related NPR interview with Dobbs and neuroscientists B.J. Casey and Dr. Jay Giedd.

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