Teenage Brains Run on Raw Emotion

Research explains why that isn’t necessarily a bad thing

Activist Greta Thunberg speaking into a microphone as she leads the Youth Climate Strike.
Activist Greta Thunberg speaking into a microphone as she leads the Youth Climate Strike.

SSome of the biggest social movements today — including protests for climate change and gun regulation — were sparked by teenagers. And while teens are often belittled as vaping TikTok fanatics, recent research suggests the passion and commitment of adolescent activists such as climate activist Greta Thunberg, Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, and the gun-control crusaders from Parkland, Florida in part reflect the unique nature of the teenage brain.

The idea that human brains dont fully mature until people are in their early to midtwenties — which has become the consensus belief among scientists over the past 15 years — was initially used to explain all manner of troublesome teen behavior. It provided a biology-based explanation of why adolescents are impulsive, highly emotional, and vulnerable to various forms of addiction.

But more recently, researchers have started to emphasize that those same phases of brain development that may encourage risk-taking behaviors can also drive teens to impressive heights. Channeled wisely, the impulses that emerge from the adolescent brain can be extremely valuable — for the kids, their societies, and perhaps the planet.

“I“In the academic community, there has been a shift in the way we think about adolescent brain development,” says Natasha Duell, a developmental psychologist who studies adolescent risk-taking at the University of North Carolina. “We were thinking about [this period of development] as a window of vulnerability. We’re now thinking of it as a potential window of opportunity.”

This new understanding has emerged from a large, ongoing series of studies. Thanks to brain imaging technology, scientists now have a much better idea of how patterns of neurological activity relate to specific emotions and behaviors. As a result, scientists now know that teen brains often react differently than their adult counterparts.

Bettina Hohnen, a London-based clinical psychologist who holds a PhD in behavioral genetics, says that in our culture, teenagers are often depicted as deficient in some way, “implying they have a broken brain,” she explains. “Part of the new science is to say this stage of brain development offers an incredible opportunity. There’s a reason that nature is causing their brains to be emotionally and motivationally driven. It allows them to make the most of their opportunities.”

While it is indeed incorrect to label teenage brains as “broken,” they do differ from those of adults in some fundamental ways. Perhaps most importantly, the prefrontal cortex — the region of the brain associated with decision-making — is among the last to develop; not coming into full maturity until one’s early to midtwenties.

This key region is still a work in progress for teenagers, as are many of the connections between different parts of the brain. The apparent result is that the adolescent brain’s emotional centers are often dominant — something parents of an angry, sullen, or excited teen has witnessed firsthand.

“What we’re understanding now is that the limbic regions, where the emotions are centered, are very active during the teen years,” says Hohnen, who is co-author of the new book The Incredible Teenage Brain. “When a teen is highly emotional and highly motivated, the prefrontal cortex can’t override that, so they make decisions that are more emotionally driven.”

Which is not to say they lack analytical skills. “When sitting and deliberating, adolescents are pretty much just like adults in terms of their ability to reason and make choices,” says Duell. “But when they are aroused or excited, adolescents’ abilities to regulate their behaviors are compromised — more so than adults.”

To cultivate the best environment for teen brain development, Hohnen says parents should think of themselves as co-pilots to their teens.

And for many teens, there is nothing quite as emotionally stimulating as the approval of their peers. MRI scans show the emotional centers of the brain are far more stimulated among teens who are interacting with peers than they are among either children or adults under similar circumstances.

“Peer integration — being part of a social group — is one of the key developmental priorities or drives that comes from their brains,” says Hohnen. “When teenagers are with their peers, it’s a very rewarding situation for them.”

The impulse to impress peers isn’t always a good thing, of course. In a 2011 study, Temple University researchers Larry Steinberg and Jason Chein found that teens who were participating in a simulated driving test were more likely to speed up and try to outrun a yellow light if they were being observed by other adolescents. Scans on the teens’ brains showed performing in front of their peers activated their brain’s reward system, which likely inspired riskier behavior.

“It’s not that the peers are egging them on,” says Hohnen. “They’re not responding to peer pressure directly. It’s simply peer presence that brings on the tendency to take more risks. Teens are trying to both fit in with their peers and discover their own identity.”

California-based pediatric psychologist Monica Delahooke, author of the book Beyond Behaviors: Using Brain Science and Compassion to Understand and Solve Children’s Behavioral Challenges, argues this can be a positive thing. “Peers are kind of a perfect bridge between your family and the outside world,” she says. “We are meant to leave the nest, but it’s difficult. With peers, you are exploring the world outside your family, but you’re not alone. You’re in a group.”

In the right environment, this dynamic is productive. Consider the ongoing, student-led walkouts protesting adult inaction regarding climate change. As Delahooke notes, teens are driven by raw emotion, “and that can translate into raw courage, and the ability to motivate others.”

IIt’s important to realize that teen brains don’t all develop at the same pace, or in precisely the same way. There is some evidence that girls’ brains, like their bodies, mature at a faster rate than boys, but that’s still being studied. Overall, the connections between different brain regions “undergo massive development during the teenage years,” says psychologist Adriana Galván of the University of California, Los Angeles, director of the school’s Developmental Neuroscience Laboratory. “How the different brain regions connect to one another is associated with the experiences the individual is having.”

This has disturbing implications for kids raised in unsafe environments, such as high-crime neighborhoods, or homes plagued by domestic violence. “Their experience teaches their brain that they should always be on high alert,” she says. “That type of hypervigilance can spiral into having mental-health symptoms later in life.”

Specifically, such teens “might make a stronger connection between the amygdala — the brain region associated with detecting threats in the environment — and the hippocampus, which is implicated in forming memories,” says Galván. “As a result, it takes less for them to feel threatened.”

This perception of threat can lead to “hair-trigger responses, where a teenager will look at someone and believe they’re going to harm them, even if they’re not intending to,” says Delahooke. The negative implications of this are obvious, and they lead her to question the wisdom of some of nationwide responses to the recent spate of school shootings, such as increased presence of security personnel.

“Think of the visual cue of an armed guard for a child going into school,” she says. “It sets your nervous system to detect threats the moment you walk into campus. It’s not good for building resilience and mental health.”

While taken aback by the news that some American high schoolers are now carrying around bullet-proof backpacks, Hohnen and co-author Jane Gilmour, who are both affiliated with University College London, expressed doubt that such reminders of potential danger would be sufficiently traumatic to influence brain development. (They do believe it’s important to “minimize fearmongering.”)

While much remains to be discovered, there is considerable evidence that being raised in a safe, loving environment can result in stronger connections between sections of the brain, creating what’s known as emotional intelligence — the ability to understand and manage our own emotions, and connect emotionally with others. And it’s increasingly clear that parents can help that process along.

For example, Gilmour and Honhen suggest that once a teen has calmed down following an emotional meltdown, parents would be wise to go over with them precisely what triggered it, and teach them to temper such reactions by utilizing their still-developing reasoning ability. “There’s a real opportunity during those years to teach emotional regulation, and strengthen the circuits between the lower part of the brain, which controls emotions and motivation, and the prefrontal cortex, which controls decision-making,” Hohnen says.

To cultivate the best environment for teen brain development, Hohnen says parents should think of themselves as co-pilots to their teens. “In the teenage years, you need to give them a little more control, while staying beside them. You might need to take the controls in an emergency, but only in an emergency. Otherwise, pointing out potential hazards while allowing them to direct their lives a bit more is the best thing you can do.”

The latest research indicates that it’s in the collective interest to consider how to ensure teenagers have access to nurturing environments. It can inspire young people to boldly challenge themselves — and the rest of us.

“Adolescents being in the forefront of so many important movements is not just true of this generation,” added Galván. “Think of the late 1960s. They fight for causes they believe in. We have changes in the adolescent brain to thank for that.”

Tom Jacobs is a California-based journalist who focuses on psychology, behavior, creativity, and the arts. He was the senior staff writer of Pacific Standard.

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