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From Robin Nixon, LiveScience.com: a report on why the teenage brain functions as it does.
A review of the neuroscience of the adolescent brain, “The Teen Years Explained: A Guide to Healthy Adolescent Development” (Johns Hopkins, 2009) affirms that after infancy, the brain’s most dramatic growth s port occurs in adolescence.
According to Sara Johnson, assistant professor at Hopkins’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, “The brain continues to change throughout life, but there are huge leaps in development during adolescence.”
Here are five things to understand about the teen brain.
- New thinking skills — increase in brain matter becomes more interconnected and gains processing power. Adolescents begin to have adult computational and decision-making skills — but they must be given time and access to information. However, the heat of the moment and emotions can influence them, since their brains rely more on the limbic system than on the more rational prefrontal cortex. Says Johnson, “This duality of adolescent competence can be very confusing for parents.”
- Intense emotions — puberty is the beginning of major changes in the limbic system (the part of the brain that helps regulate heart rate and blood sugar levels, but is also critical to the formation of memories and emotions). Part of the limbic system, the amygdala, is thought to connect sensory information to emotional responses. As it develops (along with hormonal changes) it gives rise to intense experiences of rage, fear, excitement, sexual attraction, and aggression — including toward oneself. The limbic system gradually comes under greater control of the prefrontal cortex (the area just behind the forehead — associated with planning, impulse control and higher order thinking). But — “You can be as careful as possible and you will still have tears or anger at times because they will have misunderstood what you have said,” says Johnson.
- Peer pressure — as teens become better at abstract thinking, social anxiety increases. Abstract reasoning makes it possible to consider yourself from another’s point of view, and teens ruminate on what others must be thinking of them. In particular, peer approval has been shown to be highly rewarding to the teen brain. This may be why teens are more likely to take risks when other teens are around. Friends also provide teens with learning opportunities in negotiating, compromise and group planning. They’re practicing adult social skills in a safe setting.
- Measuring risk — “The brakes come online somewhat later than the accelerator of the brain,” says Johnson, referring to the development of the prefrontal cortex (brakes) and the limbic system (accelerator). And teens need higher doses of risk to feel the same amount of rush as adults do, she says. And this makes teens vulnerable to engaging in risky behaviors. By age 17, things are calming down. Johnson advises that parents continue to limit kids’ behavior.
- “I an the center of the universe” — hormone changes at puberty have huge effects on the brain, and one of them is to spur the production of oxytocin. Oxytocin is often described as the “bonding hormone,” but increased sensitivity to its effects in the limbic system is linked to feelings of self consciousness. Adolescents truly feel everyone is watching them. These feelings peak around age 15. This may make a teen seem self-centered, but at the same time these changes are also spurring some more idealistic efforts as well. “It is the first time they are seeing themselves in the world,” says Johnson. They are asking — perhaps for the first time — what kind of a person do I want to be, what kind of world do I want to see?