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Science and the Adolescent Brain

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If you have adolescents in your house, at some point you must have said, "What were you THINKING?" Such exasperating conversations with your teenage son or daughter probably happen all too often, but have you considered the dynamic changes occurring in their adolescent brains? This perspective might actually tell you something about how to empower your adolescent for better decision-making.

From the day we are born, our brains are continually bombarded with incoming information from our body and the external environment. We rely on this spectacular organ to integrate this complex information and orchestrate appropriate responses to maximize our well-being. To do this, your brain comes into the world with an amazing capacity to learn, adapt, and change. It is no wonder, then, that early periods of brain development appear to be uniquely predisposed to capture specific skills and abilities. These skills can then be directly applied to the challenges of the age and often persist throughout your lifetime.

While great emphasis has been placed on the brain benefits of enriched environments during infancy and childhood, the last 20 years have witnessed a growing emphasis on peculiarities of brain function that seem to be defining features of adolescence. Part of this new movement stems from the recognition that nearly all species experience a period of adolescence, and that much can be learned from studying the brains of adolescents in both animals and humans. Moreover, many of the hallmark features of adolescence appear to be highly conserved across species, such as heightened sociality, conflict within the nuclear family, and rapid expansion of cognitive function. These and nearly all other defining features of the adolescent period have their roots in basic brain development.

Everyone knows that your brain can learn, but the natural tendency is to think of the brain as a "filing cabinet" for new information and abilities. The truth of the matter is that experiences-- both good and bad-- actually change the structure, wiring, and computational abilities of your brain in ways that significantly shape your thoughts, perceptions, and emotions. Thus, as adolescents meander their way through their daily lives, exploring new places, people, ideas, and challenges, they are training their brain to be more effective at processing information, making better decisions about the issues they confront, and preparing them for the independence that will come to them in upcoming years as they transition to adulthood. Through the choices they make, they have the ability to shape their brain in positive ways and prepare it for a healthy, robust life. As parents, our job is to support them through these endeavors.

Often to our dismay as parents, wise judgment and healthy decision-making does not happen overnight for adolescents. Just like young children who take many trials to learn to ride a bike, adolescents need to be empowered to make mistakes, take calculated risks, and embrace the independence they so desperately seek. The difference here is that we are talking about rich life experiences coming together with complex skills at just the right time of brain development in order to establish a fully functioning, adult brain. In contrast, learning relatively simple skills like riding a bike in younger children can often be mastered in a few hours, with highly visible accomplishments and great joy. The process of adolescents learning to plan for themselves, make well-informed decisions, and make appropriate evaluations of risk assessment--all things that scientists consider to be "executive functions" of the brain--does not happen in a single day, a single week or even in a single month. Maturation of executive function in adolescents, rather, probably spans a decade or more for most individuals, which will require patience, empowerment, and prowess from you as a parent. This process can feel glacial for parents who are frustrated and fed up with their adolescents.

So ... if we know that the brain is going through profound changes during adolescence, perhaps adolescents, parents, and teachers should try to learn a little more about how the brain works in general and some of the specific changes that occur during this time.

Terrence Deak, Ph.D. is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Binghamton University. In The Owner's Manual for Driving Your Adolescent Brain, Dr. Terrence Deak and his aunt, Dr. JoAnn Deak, explore what neuroscientists call the "plasticity" of the brain into early adulthood.