STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

A primer on the teenage brain (i.e. one of life's mysteries explained)

Andrew Mason

To educate our readers and avoid being redundant, we're creating a series of "explainer" posts on the topics we refer to a lot. This is one of them.

The teenage brain is full of opportunity. It's malleable,  almost like plastic, and can be changed.This makes adolescence a chance to really reshape the brain. 

The teenage brain is constantly changing

The teenage brain goes through a huge process of transformation during adolescence. Think of it as remodeling a house: get rid of unused features, and enhance those that are most useful. 

It goes through a "pruning" process, where scientists see the brain’s cell bodies (gray matter) that aren't used begin to disappear. The whole “use it or lose it" concept actually applies to teenage brain cells.

The brain cells that remain become better connected and more coordinated?. This is because of an increase in the brain's white matter (myelin) which allows for clear and quick communication between neurons.

Adolescent brains haven't had nearly as much practice with high level cognitive functions like following through with intricate plans and choosing delayed gratification as adults. Experience actually sharpens the brain, so the more they practice, the better they'll be. 

“Teens have risky behavior” 

Risky behavior in teens has a lot of roots in what's going on in one part of their brain, the prefrontal cortex. In the analogy of an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, the prefrontal cortex is the angel: It helps you make important decisions, follow through with plans, and decide whether or not something is actually a good idea.

But the prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully develop until adulthood. It’s late to the party, when all the other brain structures have already showed up, including the reward center of the brain. Rewards are even more appealing to teens than they are for adults. Without the prefrontal cortex, adolescents can often only see the benefits of a particular situation – not the risks.

“They have a weakness for peer pressure”

You're right, they do. Teen brains view approval from peers as an immediate reward. The presence of peers in a "risky" situation creates more perceived rewards if the teen follows through. 

“Young adults only think about themselves”

If you think your teenage kids can’t see where you’re coming from … they actually can’t. This has to do with their limited biological abilityto see things from another person’s perspective. When faced with a task or decision, their brain automatically zeroes in on their own point of view.

Teenagers are moody and tend to overreact”

The part of the brain that handles feelings like fear and anxiety, called the amygdala, develops way before the part of your brain that decides whether a fear is realistic (the prefrontal cortex). For most teens, there is no sense of over- or under-reacting, just reacting. 

Things that impact brain development:

  • Pot. Recent research shows that regular marijuana use (once a week or more) impacts memory, cognition, problem solving and ultimately – academic performance.
  • Toxic stress. If a teen is stressed all the time, like when living in an abusive household, it can disrupt development of the brain.
  • Prescription drugs. Some psychotropic medications, especially those prescribed for anxiety, may inhibit development and cause teens to miss out on important learning opportunities. 
  • Alcohol. Teens are more sensitive to alcohol than adults. Heavy drinking in adolescence may damage nerve tissue in the brain. Teens are also especiallyvulnerable to addiction

Understanding of the teenage brainhas increased in recent years, and we'll continue to update this post as new research emerges.

What other topics do you wish you knew more about? Let us know in the comment section here or on Facebook and we'll write an "explainer" on them. 

Related Content