The Surprising Strengths of the Teenage Brain

Photo by Ravi Roshan

You and I both probably know a common line about the teenage brain: it’s a novice creature, marked by impulsivity and risk-taking.

However, according to this NPR broadcast, the latest neuroscience on the adolescent brain is finding that teenage brains aren’t just impulsive, they’re also “vulnerable, dynamic and highly responsive to positive feedback.”

In other words, they’re just perfect for the beings who inhabit them.

What I especially love about this story is that a researcher does what so few ever do: acknowledges that she might have been wrong in the past. She championed a view of the teenage brain that she’s now seeing from another perspective. And when it comes to that knee-jerk impulsivity, “Teenagers are quite capable of waiting, as opposed to reacting impulsively.”

In fact, adolescent brains have a much higher sensitivity to rewards than adult brains. That doesn’t just mean the reward that comes with taking a high risk; it also means the reward that comes with making a positive choice. They are using their brains differently than adults, but they are nevertheless using their brains to assess decisions and interpret both risk and rewards.

What if we began to think about adolescents not just according to their weaknesses, but according to their strengths?

What if instead of seeing teenagers’ lives as “problems to be solved” we began to see them as “resources to be developed”?

And what if rather than seeing teenagers as hormonally-overloaded mental weaklings we began thinking about them as growing humans, made in the image of God and through which we encounter the presence of the living Christ? That might be a game-changer in our churches, families, and communities.