The Adolescent Brain

From the Headmaster's Desk, December 10, 2018

Last week I was fortunate enough to hear Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore speak.

She is currently Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London.  She studied Psychology at Oxford before completing her PhD at UCL. For more than 20 years, she has been studying the teenage brain, using MRI and video MRI. She has a specific interest in the teenage brain and education. She has produced a TV series on BBC, speaks widely – including a high profile TED talk, and this year has written a book that has won two separate awards in 2018, including the Booker Award for Science.

So I trust you are all impressed with her credentials.  I heard her speak this week and was fascinated. I immediately ordered her book, read more of her research and knew at once that I needed to share this with all of you.

When Prof Blakemore studied Psychology as an undergraduate, she was taught that most brain development took place in children.  Her work in neuroscience has radically challenged this view. She argues that the adolescent years are when we invent ourselves. It is unique period of biological, social and development.

She defines adolescence as the period of life that begins with the biological, hormonal and physical changes of puberty. It ends when an individual attains a stable and independent role in society. (It can last a long time!)

In the adolescent years, one area of the brain that undergoes the most significant development is called the prefrontal cortex. This helps with higher order functioning like decision making, planning, and inhibiting rude or anti-social behaviour. This is the part of the brain that helps us form relationships and develop as social animals.

Also important during adolescence, young people are developing their ability to understand things from another person’s perspective. As a young child you only think about what you want – and not how this impacts on others. As you grow up, you learn to balance your desires and wants with the desires and wants of those around you.

One other normal trait of adolescence is heightened risk taking and sensation seeking. Prof Blakemore’s research shows that this is just as true with teenage girls as with boys.

Peer influence is also intensely important during adolescence, and connects to risk taking. Adolescents have an even higher chance of taking risks when they are with or in front of friends. Prof Blakemore’s research shows that teenagers take 3x as many risks when in front of friends, and they take more dangerous risks.

This is so well established in the lab that USA car insurance for young drivers under the age of 25 is cheaper if the driver agrees not to have other passengers under the age of 25 in their car. Along similar lines, most rental companies refuse to rent cars to anyone aged under 25; if you find one that does rent, it only does so with ridiculous premiums.

The reason we take risks in front of friends is again related to the prefrontal cortex: the part of our brain that stops us from taking risks or makes us pause to think what a sensible adult might think in this situation, is still developing.

This is a dangerous combination:

  1. You are more likely to take risks
  2. You are constantly worried about impressing friends and scared of being excluded. Friends really matter.
  3. The ability to regulate, control and plan behaviour is still developing

Given this combination of factors, I got very worried. It suggests that it is normal or natural for teenagers to do very high risk things, along with their friends. Indeed, the average age for an arrest for violent crime is 20.  Statistics also show that 16-19 are the highest risk for car accidents, and 3x more likely to be involved in a fatal car accident.

I asked her, as a Headmaster, what can I do to stop adolescents from making silly mistakes?!

She almost laughed and said, ‘it is part of growing up. Adolescents will take risks and manage friendships and slowly develop their ability to manage and control appropriate behaviour.’ I told her that wasn’t very reassuring!

She then developed her answer and said that a safe and secure environment with clear boundaries is helpful and important. Education, and explaining her research, is also important.  In other words, if I tell you about her research, it might help you avoid sticky situations.

If you are aware that you are statistically likely to take risks, especially in front of friends, in cars, about drugs and alcohol . . . if you know that science tells you that your ability to make good judgements is still developing, then this is empowering.

It might just help you next time you are in a high risk situation. Next time you’re in front of your friends and challenged to do something you think is unwise, don’t let the adolescent brain lead you astray.

Also, let’s end with some good news. Prof Blakemore’s research shows that the adolescent brain is malleable, and ready to learn new things quickly, and developing more rapidly than adult brains. The reality is that there is much more activity in your brains than in adult brains, and therefore much more potential. She notes how fortunate young people in the developed world are. In history, and still in developing parts of the world, young people do not have the opportunity to stay in school throughout the time that the brain was developing. Now you do! Your brain is ready to learn and particularly strong in creative and lateral thinking through the teenage years.

So be careful about the risks you take and avoid unwise decisions, especially when peer pressure is involved. I know it can be hard, but every day your brain is developing. And one day, you will attain an independent, stable role in society, you will look back and laugh about silly mistakes in your days at school and university.  Let’s hope none of these mistakes have lasting damage.

I hope that you found this topic as fascinating as I did, and have a great week.


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