The Method to the Madness of the Teenage Brain

teen-brain-422x250Many people have argued that adolescence is a cultural construct — that, biologically speaking, people are either children or adults, and that the very notion of adolescence is something we cooked up to explain away the unique behaviors, needs, and desires of teens.

Neurological research has largely debunked that myth. A recent Nautilus article examines the completely unique teenage brain, concluding that adolescence is both a cultural and a biological phenomenon made possible by the teenage frontal cortex.

I’m no neurologist, so don’t worry — this won’t be a scientific piece about the complexities of a developing brain. But there is a certain amount of biology involved in understanding the complexities of a person’s mental development.

Put simply, by the time a person reaches adolescence, most of the brain is fully formed — it will not significantly grow and change as the person matures into adulthood. The frontal cortex is the main exception.

This is important is because of genetics. Back when we were just little groups of cells, we started off with a genome that got passed to every subsequent cell in the body. So all those parts of the brain that are formed early in life are significantly affected by our genetics. But since the frontal cortex is the very last part of the brain that develops, it’s the region least shaped by genetics and most affected by experience.

Why should this matter?

Because the frontal cortex is pretty darned important. It is, in a sense, what separates man from beast. The frontal cortex is the most recently evolved part of the human brain, controlling all the important, mature stuff that humans are capable off: long term planning, executive function, impulse control, and emotional regulation. Back when we were cavemen, we didn’t really need to control impulses or plan for the long run — life only lasted a couple of decades and planning pretty much involved figuring out which bush to hide behind while hunting. In today’s far more complex world, the skills controlled by the frontal cortex are all absolutely vital for success (especially impulse control — experts theorize that impulse control can be a stronger predictor of success than IQ).

The undeveloped frontal cortex of adolescents is responsible for higher emotional ups and lower emotional downs; lousy risk-assessment, a desire for risk, and a willingness to take risks; and a longing for novelty, for trying new music, food, fashion, and experiences. So if you are a teenager, and you find yourself frustrated by the fact that the adults around you just don’t seem to understand anything about you, now you know why: Your brain literally works differently than an adult’s. None of this means that your brain doesn’t work right. What this means is that you are at a unique point in your life, a point at which you can make choices that will have a permanent affect on your brain’s development:

If the frontal cortex is the last part of the brain to fully mature, it is by definition the brain region least shaped by that genome and most sculpted by experience. With each passing day, the frontal cortex is more the creation of what life has thrown at you, and thus who you become.

As they say, knowledge is power. If you have the knowledge that your brain is developing its most important region — right now, even as you are reading this article — then you can leverage that knowledge to your benefit. You know that your brain’s current condition makes you prone to taking risks that won’t pay off, so you can take care to avoid such risks. You know that your brain makes you prone to wanting to try new things (a trait that will decline as you age), so you can take care to try things that are most likely to broaden your horizons and provide beneficial experiences.

The teenage brain is different than the adult brain. Don’t fight that fact — embrace it, use it to your advantage, and develop that frontal cortex.

Read the entire Nautilus article here: Dude, Where’s My Frontal Cortex?