Inside the teenage brain

The teenage brain and behavior explained

Ritika Dhaliwal

Why do I feel this way? Why am I not able to understand my emotions? Why are others not able to comprehend my actions? Why are adults around behaving differently suddenly? Why am I not able to control myself? Is it just me? Or is it everyone else too? Who do I ask? What do I do? I find it hard to trust anyone...

As a teenager, do you have questions like these? Let's answer a few of these questions to help you understand yourself better.

I can't understand what's happening. Why do I feel so confused?

It’s not just you, every teenager experiences similar confusions and frustrations. You may experience these emotions due to your hormones, and due to the development of your brain during this phase. Understanding your situation could be of help and make the transition easier for you.

During this phase of development, it’s not just your body, but also your brain that is changing. While it is commonly belived that the major development of the brain occurs by the age of six, the brain continues to develop until the early twenties. The adolescent phase is a crucial period for the development of the parts of the brain that are responsible for logical thinking, reasoning, judgement, planning, execution and other higher mental processes.

Let's look at the different changes that occur in the brain during adolescence.

Hormonal changes

You may have heard adults around you talk about hormones as the reason for teenagers' behaviour. You will already know that once you hit puberty, there are sex hormones which are released in much larger quantities than before which may lead you to take spur-of-the-moment decisions. However, there is more to hormones than that.

Most of the brain development takes place during sleep when new connections are formed and memories are strengthened. Growth hormones are released by the pituitary gland and thus sleep is very important in establishing new learning. However, sleep cycles are largely skewed during this phase.

Our sleep is regulated by two hormones: cortisol and melatonin. While cortisol helps us wake up, melatonin makes us sleepy. Sleep research tells us that in adults, melatonin is released by around 10 pm. However, for teens, the release of melatonin can be delayed if you are busy doing something that takes a lot of your attention. It can be partly cultural (if your peers party late), but biologically it can also be attributed to the delayed release of melatonin. If you have to leave to school or college early in the morning, you may feel irritable and less attentive because you haven't slept enough.

A minimum of six hours of complete relaxed sleep is very important for both your physical and brain development. Schedule your day in such a way that you are able to make time for not just your studies and recreation but are able to sleep well too. You can take the help of a parent or an elder to help you manage your time in a better way.

Developing prefrontal lobe

The prefrontal lobe is that part of the brain that is responsible for all kinds of rational decisions. It is involved in the assessment of risk associated with a particular action, judgement, reasoning, impulse control or behaviour inhibition etc. In adults, this part is fully developed and is connected to all the other parts of the brain. So the adult brain works as a whole, integrating information from all the areas and taking informed decisions. In teenagers however, this part is still developing and continues to do so through early twenties.

Apart from developing structurally, it is also not fully functional – it does not transmit information as quickly as it does in the adult brain. This is because of neurons. Neurons are cells that transmit and convey information from one part of the brain to other. They are covered with an insulating material called the myelin sheath which makes the transmission of information up to hundred times faster than the neurons without a myelin sheath. As you would have figured, neurons are still developing this padding in your brain. Thus the transmission of information is slower and impulsivity is much more.

This myelination of the neurons first begins at the back of the brain which is responsible for emotions and feelings making teenagers ‘feel more and think less’. This makes you more emotionally vulnerable and the frequency of mood swings is higher.are felt much more intensely than they were when you were kids, often leaving you overwhelmed. This also makes you more prone to making impulsive decisions based on emotions rather than logic.

One way to deal with this problem would be to not make sudden decisions and weigh in on the pros and cons before making any decision. You can also talk to someone who will help you in the process. Make sure that the person you confide to is not another teenager who is going through the same changes that you are. This can be your parents, older sibling, teacher or another mentor.

Synaptic pruning

It’s not just the quality of connection in your brain that is changing but also the quantity of those connections. As you grow through your adolescent years, the number of connections actually reduce. If you had fifteen connections from one part of the brain to another a five-year-old, as a teenager you will have only two. These two are the ones that are most used and the others that are obsolete are cut off. These connections are stronger than the earlier fifteen connections. This helps the brain become more systematic and organized in thought processes by transmitting information easily. 

Amygdala and the Limbic system

Ever wondered why the legal age for drinking is 21? Read on to find out.

The limbic system and the amygdala are responsible for emotions. This part of the brain develops before the prefrontal cortex. Prefrontal cortex is important in identifying emotions. This may be the reason why you think it's difficult to identify or handle emotional situations. This is also the pleasure and reward zone of the brain. This is fully developed while the risk assessment part of the brain is still developing. This is why you tend to access psychological rewards through risky behaviour like drugs, alcohol and unsafe racing.

The legal age for alcohol consumption is 21 because your brain is still developing and any such substance may slow down the process. Drinking a lot at this age could also make you vulnerable to addiction.