How is the Teenage Brain Different?
It appears that brain development takes a lot longer that once believed. At one time the consensus was that our brains were developed at around the age of 6 and didn’t do much growing after that. Now, after the NIH project that studied over a hundred teens in the late ‘90s, we know that teenage brains go through a reorganization of growing and pruning during adolescence and until the early 20’s.
Brain development moves from the back of the head, where very basic actions and reflexes emerge toward the front, where the frontal lobe and prefrontal cortex are involved in complicated thought processes. This important and area is responsible for problem solving, abstract thinking, risk assessment and planning, and impulse control.
Researchers have found that dendrites or receptor sites in the brains of teens are more sensitive to neurotransmitters like dopamine (pleasure seeking) and oxytocin (social rewards). These receptor sites have their antennae up or are alert for possible rewards or sensation seeking events. What Temple U found in a study using a video game to assess teen’s ability to make judgments based on risk, was that teens made very similar judgements as to those of adults, but only when they were playing the game alone. When another teen was in the room the results were different. Teens took more risks when they knew another teen was watching. It appears that the social perk of beating the game was more important than taking their time to come out ahead. Teens are wired to seek the social rewards.
Researchers concluded that risk taking, is not just a part of adolescence, but maybe the critical element that pushes kids to start something new, to move out of the house they grew up in, to meet more people and make new friends. It appears that risk taking is central in the development of who we are and who we want to be.
Brain activity hinges on Axons sending messages to Dendrites and as we get older the Myelin Sheath, a milky white substance helps those connections grow stronger. It works like muscle memory. The more we do something and repeat the action, the less we have to think about it. For instance, when we first learn to drive a car we have to think about everything from the ignition, to the mirrors. But after driving for years we can drive the whole way to work and not really remember how we got there! But when forming new connections the brain needs a little bravado to move and create new links. This is the growing and the pruning process of brain development in adolescence. It is awkward and mistakes happen. That is part of the growing and pruning. Those are the growing pains.
Youth is more willing to take risks because the brain is designed to encourage that for growth, adaptation and learning. That is not so say that it is not painful, for you or your child. Being aware of how the brain works helps us understand our kids better. And that leads to better relationships.