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The Teenage Brain

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A Work in Progress

Teenagers baffle us. In the course of a single day a teenager can go from affectionate to unbearable to reckless to brilliant. They can be responsible and considerate in the morning and then do something devastatingly dangerous that evening. The word “teenager” is almost like saying “temporarily insane” in our society. Parents see the teenage years as something to be survived. Until fairly recently, very little attention was paid to why teenagers are the way they are.

An October 2011 National Geographic article by David Dobbs reports that “The first full series of scans of the developing adolescent brain—a National Institutes of Health (NIH) project that studied over a hundred young people as they grew up during the 1990s—showed that our brains undergo a massive reorganization between our 12th and 25th years.” In other words, the human brain is “remodeled” during adolescence. Among other changes, synapses are strengthened or pruned based on use. The cortex of the brain gets thinner, but more “efficient” according to Dobbs’ article.

If you have ever engaged in a home remodeling project, you know that remodeling is fraught with surprises: broken pipes, material delays, cost overruns, change orders, good and bad discoveries. If you are lucky, you find gorgeous wood floors under old carpeting. If not so lucky, you find dry rot. Why should the remodeling of a human brain be any more predictable than any other type of remodeling project? The fact is that the teenage brain is exactly that: a project. Remodeling projects are messy and can look disorganized. They are horrible to live through, but they are how we get an improved home.

Dobbs’ article quotes B. J. Casey, a neuroscientist at Weill Cornell Medical College, “We’re so used to seeing adolescence as a problem. But the more we learn about what really makes this period unique, the more adolescence starts to seem like a highly functional, even adaptive period.”

So whatever your day with your teenager has revealed—angst, rudeness, moodiness—take it in stride. Each is a necessary part of the project. The emotions and actions that don’t feel good or do not serve a purpose—foolish impulsiveness, for example—will be revealed, experienced and, hopefully, “pruned” so that other skills such as focus and the ability to delay gratification can get more energy. In many ways, the study of adolescent brains reveals that we have more to be proud of than we do to be afraid of when it comes to our teenagers.

…. Now if they would just pick up their rooms…

[AUTHOR: Hilary Doubleday]

September 24, 2012

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