Neuroplasticity, Part II – The Teenage Brain

In my last blog, I stated that “In my next blog I will discuss aspects of the teenage brain and why the SELF ProgramTM was designed for this age group.”

In this blog, I engage in the discussion of the teenage brain.

When it comes to the human brain, talking about the teenage or adolescent years covers ages 9 through 24. This is because during this age range, our brain undergoes extensive remodeling, a form of neuroplasticity, that involves a number of dramatic changes. These brain remodeling changes evolved over thousands of generations producing individuals who, during the transition from childhood to adulthood, can leave a safe home and move into, and thrive in, unfamiliar territory.

Four dramatic changes are the: 1) maturation of the amygdala; 2) pruning away of synapses not being used; 3) insulation of the brain’s axons; and 4) maturation of the prefrontal cortex.

The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure that reaches its maximum size around ages 9 – 11, and is responsible for our fight, flee, or freeze response when we feel threatened, and is part of our limbic system. Our limbic system controls our emotions and helps us form and retain memories.

Synapses are the tiny gaps across which a nerve cell (neuron) sends signals to other neurons. The brain prunes away synapses in order to make the remaining ones communicate more efficiently. During the pruning process, synapses are selected based on whether or not they are used. Hence, behaviors and skills that are acquired or continued at this age are more likely to be maintained by the brain. The pruning process begins at the back of the brain and moves forward. This causes the prefrontal cortex, (described later in this blog), to be the last area to be pruned.

Axons are long nerve fibers that neurons use to signal other neurons. As the synapses are pruned down, an insulating substance called myelin coats the axons to protect them. Insulating them boosts the transmission speeds of the axons up to a hundred times.

The prefrontal cortex is located behind the eyes, does not fully mature until we are around 24 years old, and enables us to perform various executive functions like complex decision-making, thinking before we act, and ignoring external distractions. During adolescence, the prefrontal cortex gains greater control of the limbic system. This allows us to think before we act.

Given all these changes, we should view adolescent behaviors like haste, impulsiveness, and recklessness as a time when we gain an adaptive adolescent brain that: 1) enables us to move away from the safety of our parents and home; 2) allows us to move into the strange and challenging world outside our home; and 3) enabled us to explore and spread across the entire planet. Among the key traits of the adaptive adolescent brain are: 1) sensation seeking; 2) risk taking; 3) a preference for those who are their own age (peers); and 4) self-awareness.

The first three traits – sensation seeking; risk taking; and a preference for the company of peers –cause adolescents to sometimes do foolish and risky new things with their friends. In fact, some brain-scan studies suggest that the teenage brain reacts to peer exclusion in much the same way it responds to threats to physical health or food supply. Hence, at a neural level, adolescents perceive social rejection as a threat to their existence.

But, when the changes first begin to occur, our brain works awkwardly because it is hard for all of the new changes and capabilities to work well together. The tendency for these changes to work awkwardly is a hallmark of the teenage brain. And, this clumsiness, combined with hormone changes, often causes adults to view teenage behaviors as a problem.

However, these and other changes make the entire brain much faster and more sophisticated, and enable us to improve our ability to integrate our memory and experience into our decisions. They also allow us to generate and weigh many more variables and lists of things to do than were possible before the changes. After the changes occur and are functioning, we get better at balancing complex behaviors like impulses, desires, goals, self-interest, rules, ethics, and altruism. In addition, adolescents gravitate toward peers to invest in their future rather than the past. As children, we enter a world made by our parents, (the past), but will live most of our lives, and prosper (or not), in a future run and remade by our peers. Hence, for future success, we need to know, understand, and build relationships with our peers, and evolution wired this preference into our adolescent brain.

The SELF ProgramTM focuses on adolescents because the above mentioned, and other changes, make the teen years a time when we can learn to manage emotions, deal with peer pressure, and acquire new skills and insights. It is also a time when helping young people gain self-knowledge, form a self-image, obtain the life skills needed to effectively deal with the demands and challenges of everyday life and, achieve a future orientation, can increase their chances of success. The SELF ProgramTM works to help adolescents cultivate these skills so they can successfully cope with the challenges of adolescence, and increase their chances of success in life, and the world they will help create.

In my next blog I will discuss how our brain enables us to feel empathy. The final blog in this neuroplasticity series will discuss how we can strengthen our brains.

Comments (1)

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