September 20, 2011

Beautiful (and Confusing) Teen Brains


In his recent article in the October 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine, David Dobbs says, through brain imaging available today, we can now get a literal picture of how brains work. We can actually watch the gradual development of the human brain from 12 years old until the mid-twenties when adult functioning begins to emerge. He offers us a wonderful and mostly understandable description of how the human brain increases in complexity with age. How, in time, that evolution in brain wiring results in what we might call maturity and the ability to better sort, balance and prioritize all the competing agendas, internal drives, rules, peer pressure, and stimuli a teen is faced with every day, and make reasoned choices. These are exactly the kind of choices that seem to escape so many of today’s teens.

I love how Dobbs lays out what is at the heart of much adult frustration with teenagers. He says, “These studies help explain why teens behave with such vexing inconsistency: beguiling at breakfast, disgusting at dinner; masterful on Monday, sleepwalking on Saturday.” It also explains why teens persist in doing what adults consider foolish things!

The article gives a very detailed description of why teens are so drawn to experiences of risk, novelty, and excitement, and why they are so drawn to value the company of their peers above that of parents or other adults. It is also one of the few descriptions that offers upside explanations as to why natural selection hasn't resulted in the elimination of the foolishness of adolescents.

We know that teens love excitement. Young humans seek risk more aggressively as teens than at any other age. Most adult males I know have a catalog of stupid things they did as teens and sad tales of the consequences. There are always narrow escapes, bizarre escapades, and foolish adventures that seem funny in retrospect but many of which might have resulted in death. Among the most frightening is the statistic that one in three teen deaths is from car crashes, many involving alcohol. This sad reality is clearly reflected in the automobile insurance rates charged for adolescent males wanting to drive. Testosterone, the love of a thrill and risk taking don’t mix well with easy access to alcohol and cars.
. . . virtually all the world's cultures recognize adolescence
as a distinct period in which adolescents
prefer novelty, excitement, and peers.
In so many ways, our teens, with their poorly wired brains, hunger for sensation, risk, novelty, and excitement, need our compassion, not our shaming expressions of frustration. They need our understanding, and then, most importantly, they need guidance, limits setting, role modeling . . . they need caring adults around to play the role of their underdeveloped frontal cortex. They need a caring adult in their lives to consistently set the limits they are not able to yet grasp or form for themselves. As David Dobbs puts it, “Studies show that when parents engage and guide their teens with a light but steady hand, staying connected but allowing independence, their kids generally do much better in life.”

At this link, you can hear a recent National Public Radio program on this topic. It included David Dobbs, and two brain researchers: BJ Casey, a Professor and Director of the Sackler Institute at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, and National Institute of Mental Health neuroscientist, Dr. Jay Giedd.

In the video clip below, Dr. Giedd describes how current technologies, including social media, are impacting the brains of today’s teens. He calls teenagers today, digital natives, kids who have never know a time without technology. He believes that for all of the information available to them today, one of the most powerful ways to influence them is by solid and positive adult role modeling.


If the clip doesn't show up, use this link.


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