The Cardus Daily

The Teenage Brain

Milton Friesen  |  October 12, 2011  |  Complexity, Parenting

I used to have one. Now I have two in my house, a third just about to enter the ranks, and a fourth peering eagerly over the fence. My interest in the teenage brain is, therefore, both nostalgic and pragmatic. I both remember being a teenager, and plan on surviving the process of raising them. Since I am responsible for the care and feeding of some of these unusual creatures, it seemed that failing to read the National Geographic article on the subject would have been poor form indeed. Here are a few things I learned.

First, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) research suggests that teenage brains, like newborns’, undergo significant reorganization. From my experience and observation, I can only assume that this reorganization happens via loosely glued Post-It notes that often fall off of the assigned neural boxes, resulting in fantastic logistical confusion. This explains why, despite having supposedly rational dimensions, some teenage decisions can only be described as a mysterious form of metaphysical ping pong: “[A]s we move through adolescence, the brain undergoes extensive remodeling, resembling a network and wiring upgrade” (Teenage Brain 43). Read between the lines on this one: the upgrade is an end product fueled by an often puzzling process.

Second, the part of the brain that looks after the really complicated stuff (memory, judgment, etc.) changes last. Breathing, eating, sleeping, and other biological functions are the base on which future nuance and social elegance are, eventually, built. This leads the authors to suggest that: “Troublesome traits like idiocy and haste don’t really characterize adolescence. They’re just what we notice most because they annoy us or put our children in danger” (48). Well, that’s one way to look at it. Apparently, teenagers can make themselves pay attention, but the brain regions that take care of performance monitoring, planning, and error correction function much more like a Maple Leafs’ odd-man rush than like a well-oiled machine. There is plenty of neural energy but the steering wheel doesn’t get installed until a later date.

Third, while it’s tempting to conclude that the cake is only partly baked until we reach our mid-twenties, perhaps we ought to see teenagers’ peculiar state of life in a much more imaginative light. Researchers are suggesting that we see our teenager as an “exquisitely sensitive, highly adaptive creature wired almost perfectly for the job of moving from the safety of home into the complicated world outside.” The very qualities of being impetuous, unreasonable, and incomprehensible are in fact the ground of significant adaptive capabilities. If your teenager was already a rigid, unbending, crotchety old man, he would never survive the convolutions of adolescence. Something to think about.

Fourth, and most hopefully, the article notes that teenagers very much need adults who are willing to stick with them through the various forms of chaos teens must navigate. The very interactions that arise when, for instance, your daughter manages to use one of your vehicles as a demolition device against your other vehicle while backing out of the drive to pick up milk are important. It’s social architecture, not of the sort that deals with institutions and organizations but which, nonetheless, underpins a very, very old process of slowly cobbling a life of wisdom, judgment, and significance out of the neural storm that has swept through us all. Anyone know of a good body shop?



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