We’re going to close out science week with a look at teenage brains, thanks to the fine folks over at National Geographic magazine. No, sorry, dude, I have no idea why National Geographic is talking about brains instead of mountains and suchlike.
Or naked tribeswomen. What? That was a big part of the allure of the magazine lo these many years ago.
One guess I’ve got on why the dudes at the magazine are focusing on brains is that the fellows at the National Geographic tv channel are running a big special on brains starting this Sunday (Oct. 9 for the date impaired). Nah. Cross promotion probably has nothing to do with it.
Anyway, back to the article. While it’s beautiful to look at, coming as it does from photographic champ National Geographic, the ground it covers isn’t all that new. Basically, the magazine is looking at stuff we’ve talked about on this site before.
Teenage brains aren’t done, they’re more like works in progress. Thanks to advances in medical imaging techniques, we’re able to look inside those scarily moody teenage brains and watch the thinking bits at work. We can then compare them to adult brains and see how the teenage brain is in the process of winnowing out connections that don’t work, or don’t work well enough, and establishing connections between neurons that more simply help it do the work it needs to do.
This is an ongoing process, one that doesn’t finally complete until well into the teen dude and dudette’s early 20’s. Not only that, the article says, but teens also are more prone to taking risks that adult dudes would shy away from. Basically that’s all up to dopamine, one of the brain’s key neurotransmitters that has to do with pleasure and risk-seeking behavior.
When (brain) development proceeds normally, we get better at balancing impulse, desire, goals, self-interest, rules, ethics, and even altruism, generating behavior that is more complex and, sometimes at least, more sensible. But at times, and especially at first, the brain does this work clumsily. It’s hard to get all those new cogs to mesh.
Which is why teenagers often do things that, to them, seem perfectly sensible, but to outside observers (read, parents) seems like screamingly, hair-raisingly dangerous and stupid.
Even as brain function develops, it doesn’t do so on a smooth path. There’s tons of stops and starts, screeches into reverse, and all sorts of jaggedy movement. Just so you understand why your teenage dude was a pleasure to be with at breakfast, but by lunch it was all you could do not to strap him to his chair with duct tape and call the exorcist.
Teenage brains: Cthulhu ain’t got nothing on them.
Go. Read. May it bring you comfort that you’re not alone and that there really is a reason for it.