Teenage brains are ‘weird but wonderful’

Gifted: young people are much better than adults at forming new memories.

Should adults be more like teenagers? Children’s mental health has suffered during the pandemic, but experts are confident young people’s remarkable brains will survive and adapt.

Could this be the strangest time in history to be a teenager? No other young generation in recent memory has had to spend two years shut up inside, learning alone from a screen, rarely able to see friends or extended family.

So it is no wonder that mental health problems have hit an all-time high among the young. New NHS research shows that one in six 5 to16-year-olds reported a probable mental health disorder last year - up from one in nine in 2017.

But experts are keen to stress that young people’s brains can bounce back even from extreme pressures like the pandemic, because when we are young, our brains are at their quickest and most flexible.

Humans evolved to be adaptable creatures, and we have used this skill to spread ourselves into all of the world’s diverse environments: grasslands, forests, mountains, deserts, even ice sheets.

Unlike other species, we have created our own environments to live in: cities and towns, ships, space stations and perhaps in the near future, settlements on other planets.

But to do this, we had to evolve extremely malleable brains that develop during our childhood to adapt to the environment that we find ourselves in. That is why the brain takes much longer to develop than any other organ.

And during this lengthy development time, the young brain has extraordinary abilities. Teenagers have more brain cells and synapses than adults do, meaning that their memories are better and they can make more connections between different things.

This all means that teenagers are more creative and imaginative than adults, and it is much easier to learn new languages, talents and skills when we are young. Adults above the age of forty tend to find that their most vivid memories are from their teenage years: a phenomenon known as the “reminiscence bump”.

But teenage years also come with pressures that young brains are not well suited to managing. The limbic system, the part of the brain that is involved in taking risks, has more connections when we are teenagers. The prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, which handles decision-making, is much less developed in our early years.

That means teenagers are more likely to make reckless decisions. And it gives them addictive personalities: without a fully developed sense of delayed gratification, teenagers are more likely to indulge in things that they enjoy, but that are harmful to them in the long run.

It also makes them more susceptible to peer pressure.

Teenagers are more dependent than adults on the respect of other people, which means they are easily persuaded to do rash things that they later come to regret. Experts have even suggested that the adolescent brain’s dependence on validation explains why young people are more likely to join violent extremist groups.

Should adults be more like teenagers?

Forever young

Yes, say some. Adults too easily let their experience of the world turn a dull grey. Trying to think more like teenagers, appreciating the wild ups and downs of a life lived in the moment, could help inject some more joy into their daily routines. And it would help them come up with more imaginative, inventive solutions to the problems that life poses.

Not at all, say others. Adults should stop looking so wistfully back at their teenage years: their brains are entirely capable of learning new things, enjoying new experiences and living in the moment. And being an adult comes with other advantages: self-confidence, maturity, level-headedness. Instead of trying to become more like kids themselves, adults should help their children grow.

You Decide

  1. Are you looking forward to being an adult, or would you prefer to stay a child?
  2. Why do you think so many cultures place so much importance on the idea of “coming of age”?

Activities

  1. Get in a small group. Together, you are going to write a letter to be sent backwards through time to your class at the start of the pandemic. Give them some tips and encouragement for getting through the year to come.
  2. In a small group, draw a storyboard focusing on a young person being persuaded by their friends to do something they do not want to do, with tragic consequences.

Some People Say...

“Good habits formed at youth make all the difference.”

Aristotle (384 – 322), ancient Greek philosopher.

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that society is not built around the teenage brain. For example, teenagers are programmed to sleep later than adults. Adults start releasing the sleep hormone melatonin from about eight o’clock in the evening, but teenagers do not do so until around midnight. But in most places, schooldays start even earlier than work days: meaning that teenagers do not get all the sleep they need to develop. Some schools now start the school day later to accommodate these sleep patterns.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over when “adulthood” really begins. In ancient Rome, adulthood was thought to begin at age 12 for girls, 14 for boys. In Judaism, the threshold of adulthood is still age 13 for boys and 12 for girls, while in the Catholic Church it can be anywhere between 12 and 15 for either gender. Recent research has shown that the brain actually keeps developing until about the age of 25, suggesting that we should perhaps consider “adolescence” to continue until then.

Word Watch

NHS research
Research conducted by the National Health Service.
Malleable
A malleable material can be shaped easily without breaking under stress.
Synapses
Structures that allow brain cells to convey nervous impulses to each other, making them essential for thought. A single thought or action can use thousands of synapses.
Reminiscence
Fondly recalling a past event. It comes from the Latin reminisci, “to remember”.
Limbic system
A set of structures in the brain. It also supports the development of memories, emotions, long-term memory and our sense of smell.
Prefrontal cortex
The area at the very front of the brain. It is also involved in constructing personality and moderating social behaviour.
Addictive personalities
A person who suffers from low self-worth and lacks stimulation is more likely to become addicted to certain substances.
Delayed gratification
The ability to refuse an immediate reward in favour of a later one. Only a small number of species display this behaviour: humans, chimps, parrots, crows and, oddly enough, cuttlefish.

Subjects

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