The Teen Brain: Nearly Perfect or Far From It?

Posted on October 10th, 2011, 0 Comments

How would you describe the teen brain? Not your teen’s brain specifically – but in general, how would you describe the brains of these maddeningly moody and impulsive risk-takers?

A Quick Review of Teen Brain Science
We used to think that brain development was largely done by the time children reached kindergarten. We now know that during adolescence the brain undergoes a massive remodeling that lasts well into the 20s. During this time, brain connections that are not being used get pruned back while the others grow and then get wrapped in a blanket of fat called myelin that helps electrical signals move much faster (up to 100 times faster) and more efficiently.

The teen brain undergoes changes in nearly every area – from language to logic to impulses and insight. Perhaps most important, researchers have learned that the brain develops unevenly as remodeling during adolescence progresses from the back of the brain (at the back of the head) to the front of the brain (by the forehead). As a result of this wave-like progression of remodeling, pleasure and thrill seeking regions of the brain develop well before other systems designed to put the brakes on questionable actions. In fact, the prefrontal cortex – critical for planning, decision-making, and impulse control – is one of the last areas of the brain to fully mature.

It’s Nearly Perfect
The above review (not to mention most of what has been written in popular articles and scholarly papers over the past decade) could easily lead you to conclude that the teen brain is anything but perfect. However, those working on the edge of neuroscience have recently begun to remind us of something that seems to have gotten lost in translation: Teens’ sensation seeking and risk-taking, the delayed completion of their brains’ prefrontal area, and even their moodiness are adaptive. In fact, from an evolutionary viewpoint, teens’ brains are wired almost perfectly for the scary task of leaving a safe home and learning how to function independently in a complicated world.

For more on this brighter story about your teen’s brain, check out “Beautiful Brains” by David Dobbs, the feature story in the October issue of National Geographic.

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