• Adolescent Brains in the 21st Century by Dr Jack

    I was once told that adolescence is the hardest thing I would ever have to do in life. Up to that point in time I had got the overwhelming impression that most adults wished they could go back to the simple life they seemed to distinctly remember enjoying during childhood. All this smacked of rose-tinted glasses to me, but still I asked myself what exactly was I doing so wrong to find the teenage years a bit of a grind.

    Teenagers tend to experience life in the extreme. The highest highs rub shoulders with the lowest lows. They tend to experience everything as either fabulously exciting, depressing, or mind-numbingly boring, with very little in between. There are a variety of reasons why this is the case:

    • during adolescence the brain is a patchwork quilt of work-in-progress (see video below)
    • it is undergoing a neurochemical conspiracy that simultaneously amplifies emotions
    • whilst encouraging risk taking and exaggerating perceived benefit

    …all in the absence of any extensive experience that, in adults, can occasionally step in to trump the usually erroneous risk/benefit calculations that accompany every decision at an unconscious, implicit level.

    I personally found the acknowledgement that being a teen is tough to be profoundly reassuring. Now as a neuroscientist I can go one step further by actually showing WHY being a teenager will always feel tough at times. More importantly I will describe why teenagers of today will turn into adults that are even more different from the previous generation than ever before in the history of man.

    Human brain maturation does not reach completion until after adolescence. During the teenage years the brain is literally caught midway between adulthood and childhood. In the mid-teens cerebral maturation looks like a patchwork quilt, with some areas that have already reached their adult form intermingled amongst others that have not changed significantly since childhood. Yet other regions of cortex find themselves in a transition state part way between the two extremes. This is why a teenager can seem so bright and intelligent one minute, whilst making the most disasterous decisions and over-reacting in the most outrageous emotional outbursts the next. There is a child and an adult co-existing in the brain of a teen. Below is a video that tracks the brain’s maturation over the course of adolescence starting in the early teens and ending in late teens (blue colour = mature cortex; so keep an eye out for how much green, yellow, orange and red is still in the mix throughout most of adolescence).

    The process of adolescent brain maturation, counterintuitively, does not involve an increase in the thickness of the brain’s outer surface (the cortex). On the contrary, it actually involves a reduction in cortical thickness – as less important synaptic connections and brain pathways are “pruned” away; presumably to free up resources for more intensively-used neural networks. This process enables the brain to function more and more efficiently the more certain behaviours are repeatedly performed and elaborated upon. Skills that we acquire with a great deal of time and effort during childhood are performed effortlessly by the time we reach adulthood.

    The human brain will adapt to any environment with which many, many hours are spent interacting. These days the real life immediate environment of a teenager’s home, school, playground, social settings etc in which they spend their waking hours is increasingly supplemented by a wide variety of virtual and online spaces and places into which innumerable hours are poured. This means that digital natives – kids that cannot remember a time before the internet – are going through their “synaptic pruning” maturation phase of accelerated teen brain development synergistically with virtual, as well as real, worlds. The brains that result from this interactive process will be specialised differently to those honed during a twentieth century adolescence.

    Cause for alarm? Well, maybe yes, maybe no. It will undoubtedly be a mixed bag. Brain specialisation to improve efficiency in the execution of one behaviour will always come at the expense of specialisation that could have been invested in something else. This is displacement.

    When time spent playing massive multiplayer online games (MMOG) entirely displaces time spent engaging in old fashioned face-to-face interaction with a friend or group of friends certain brain areas will be improved in preference to others. That teenager would develop superior visuospatial, rapid task-switching and quick decision making abilities, but at the expense of social skills; unless time is also invested in extensive face-to-face communication with peers. Social networking and instant messenging services actually takes this social displacement to a whole different level by actively disrupting what little time is acutally spent in the company of real people.

    Teen social lives are increasingly becomeing less about the face-to-face and much more about face-down-to-phone. The right to choose which smartphone alerts they do and don’t respond to are waived in favour of a slavish dependency. The attention of many teens is immediately diverted to any BBM, Twitter, Facebook etc alert that squarks and vibrates from their smartphone – regardless of where they are or who they are with. This constant disruption must surely degrade the quality of in person social interaction and brain specialisation supporting this vital skill. So does this mean the art of conversation is utterly doomed?

    If teens can be made aware of the need to take control of their digital consumption then there is hope. Otherwise they’ll find themselves distinctly uncomfortable being in the same room as other people and will much prefer to communicate through the written word – a scenario that will inevitably leave them feeling empty. Brains that evolved to communicate much more effectively through body language than speech will inevitably miss the physical presence of another person when communication becomes exlusively remote. Not to mention the fact that physical touch is one of the primary ways in which a brain is inspired to activate brain circuitry that makes a human being feel safe, secure and content.

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