The Teenage Brain

Research now supports what psychotherapists (and parents) have known for a long time – the teenager brain is different from the adult brain. Recent research by scientists at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has found that the teen brain is not a finished product, but a work in progress.

Until recently, most scientists believed that the major wiring of the brain was completed by as early as three years of age and that the brain was fully mature by the age of ten or twelve. New findings show that the greatest changes to the parts of the brain that are responsible for functions such as self-control, judgement, emotions, and organisation occur between puberty and adulthood. This may help to explain certain teenage behaviour that adults can find mystifying, such as poor decision making, recklessness, and emotional outbursts. The brain is still developing during the teenage years (even into the 20’s) and does not stop at age 10. What is most surprising is that you get a second wave of overproduction of gray matter, something that was thought to happen only in the first 18 months of life.

Following the overproduction of gray matter, the brain undergoes a process called pruning. The connections among neurons in the brain that are not being used wither away, while those that are used stay – the ‘use it or lose it’ principle. It is thought that this pruning process makes the brain more efficient by strengthening the connections that are used most often, and eliminating the clutter of those that are not used at all.

What does this mean for our developing teenagers?

Unlike infants whose brain activity is completely determined by their parents and environment, teenagers may actually be able to control how their own brains are wired and sculpted. Teenagers who exercise their brains by learning to order their thoughts, understand abstract concepts, and control their impulses are laying the neural foundations that will serve them for the rest of their lives. You are hardwiring your brain in adolescence. Do you want to hardwire it for sports and playing music, literature and positive socialising or for lying on the lounge in front of the television or playing computer games? The associations are crucial, revealing that it is important to be conscious of the need to use positive rather than negative activities and stimulus for hard wiring the brain.

To sum it all up – as puberty stimulates the pruning and thus the hardwiring process, what you choose to immerse yourself in consequently tells the brain which things are important to focus on. Your ability in a certain area expands if stimulated or shrinks if neglected. Each part of the brain improves in different ways. The parietal lobes controlling sight, sound, and speech, the interconnecting circuits, the temporal lobes that control language and emotions, the hippocampus that creates memories, and the amygdala controlling fear and anger mature with androgen, a male hormone. Nerve cells aiding intelligence, consciousness, and self-awareness keep growing even into a person’s 20s. The frontal lobes that aid self-control, judgement, emotional maturity as well as the ability to organise and plan can grow again.

At puberty, your physical and emotional development creates windows for learning. These are the high school years. All along, your emotions strongly impact on learning skills. Motivation and positive feelings help you learn; stress and negative feelings will hinder your learning.

You as a teenager have the power to determine the direction of your own brain development whether you stimulate it with art, music, sports, video games or literature your brain structures are adapted accordingly.

How does the College integrate this information into its programming?

We do this by programming our lessons consciously, applying questions such as:

  • How will the resources we use in the classroom stimulate the student’s brain towards positive development?
  • How will their mental time and energy be spent?
  • Which reasoning skills are we developing the most?
  • Thus, which brain cells are being pruned away?
  • How much time and energy does the student actually focus on their mental growth skills?
  • How can we build confidence in all that they do?
  • What effect will these choices have on their future success at University? In their career? In life itself?
  • We are constantly on the lookout trying to pinpoint areas that nurture the type of positive change that will benefit the hardwiring of the teenage brain; we then integrate this knowledge into our programmes.