Even if we’ve been through our teenage years, understanding the adolescent brain can still prove to be extremely difficult for adults. While pondering the actions of her two teenage sons, neuroscientist Frances Jensen decided it was time to learn more about what goes on in the teenage brain. What she found is of great importance for parents, teachers, public policymakers and for teenagers themselves.
Jensen explained her motives and her findings at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology which was held in Washington earlier this month. Using previous studies published in various scientific journals, she aimed to discover why teenagers act as they do, sharing her findings with parents and teens, through a series of talks known as ‘Teen Brain 101′. Not content with giving talks, Jensen co-wrote ‘The Teenage Brain’ with a reporter from the Newark Star Ledger, Amy Ellis Nutt, which became a bestseller following its publication earlier this year.
Based on her findings, Jensen believes that the developments in brain science over the last 10-12 years has quashed some of the long-held assumptions in regards to hormones driving the often rebellious and risky behaviour exhibited by teens. She suggests that although hormones do play a part, most of the behaviour seen during the teenage years is as a result of having brains which are not yet fully developed and, contrary to previous theories, our brains don’t develop fully until we are into our mid-twenties.
So what does this actually mean?
In teenagers, the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain involved in judgement making, calculating risks and controlling impulses, has not yet connected fully to the area of the brain that seeks pleasure and reward. This means that they become more susceptible to addictions, getting addicted quicker and more strongly than adults. The affects of addiction last much longer too; the after effects of a weekend high could last for days. In addition, while drugs such as alcohol and marijuana may have a temporary sedative effect on adult brains, they can cause permanent damage to a teenage brain.
However, teenagers also exhibit amazing improvements in brain capacity and growth. While IQ was once thought to be set during childhood, Jensen found that IQ could either increase or decrease during the teenage years. This finding suggests that appropriate brain stimulation should be given to teenagers during adolescence to improve weakness and build on their strengths.