How does the teenage brain work?

Understanding the working and development of the teenage brain

Ritika Dhaliwal

"The young are heated by nature as drunken men by wine” 
– Aristotle

Adolescence comes with a lot of emotional and behavioural changes. It is marked by confusion in the minds of teenagers as well as the adults surrounding them. Even as adults make an effort to understand what makes them impulsive, moody and highly prone to taking risks, it's important to remember that teenagers too are struggling with understanding their emotions and reactions.

Biology textbooks in school talk about the physical changes in an adolescent 's body; but rarely is there any focus on the development of the brain and how it determines the behavior of adolescents and young adults.

Let’s consider some situations that may seem familiar in the context of adolescents we have interacted with. An adolescent goes to a mall to watch a movie but comes back with a new phone, spending all the money he has been saving for a long time. Another one buys a new skateboard, starts skateboarding on the rooftops and ends up hurting himself. And yet another child gets into drugs and drinking alcohol with his friends at the pretext of doing something new. So what is it in the brains of teenagers that leads them to ignore the possible dangers and indulge in risky behaviour?

It is believed that the major part of brain development happens during the early years of childhood. Although the brain reaches 90 per cent of its full size by the age of six, it is still extensively remodelling and changing till the mid-twenties. It resembles a network and wiring upgrade - it is establishing new connections and getting rid of old ones which are not of use anymore. Connections in the brain refer to the different networks of communication that occur within it.

Understanding adolescents' behavior

There are two parts of the brain that are very important in understanding adolescents' behavior -- the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for reasoning, thinking, logic, creativity, inhibitory control etc. The limbic system is responsible for processing emotions such as anger and sensitivity to danger, and for for reward processing.

The prefrontal cortex develops after the limbic system. This is the reason adolescents tend to be ruled more by their emotions than by reason, logic or impulse. The reward processing centre is also more sensitive at this age than during childhood or adulthood. Therefore, they tend to indulge in dangerous behavior.

In fact, the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that helps us think of the potential consequences of our actions – does not fully develop until the mid-twenties. This explains why teenagers have less regard for potential consequences. If something makes them feel good, they tend to do it for the momentary pleasure.

The continued development and plasticity of the brain can, however, be used to push adolescents to develop many creative skills as well. You can engage with an adolescent in a way that encourages them to pick up new skills and improve the existing ones. Connections that are being used often in the brain at this age are strengthened and the ones which are not used often are discarded, just like a gardener would cut out the weaker branches of a bush so that the strong ones grow even stronger.

What adults can do

As adults, it is essential to mentor adolescents in a way that does not cause them to feel like they are being bossed around or controlled. The brain is very adaptive and malleable during this age and good mentoring and support can go a long way in the development of the adolescent brain. One should also be careful to not stigmatize impulse control, risk-taking or self-consciousness in children of this age. This will only cause them to get frustrated and engage in more rebellious behavior.