By Vestina F. Crayton
4-H Youth Development, Extension Educational Instructor
Quite often conversations about teens include a series of questions that begin with ‘why?’ Why do they act that way, why did they do that, why are they dressed that way and so on. Over the years, studies have been done on the teen brain to help answer some of these questions.
In 1999, by utilizing MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) technologies, some researchers were surprised to discover that just before puberty, a second wave of overproduction of gray matter (the thinking part of the teen’s brain) occurs. The teen’s gray matter changes in different functional brain areas at different times in development. For example, the gray matter growth spurt just prior to puberty is predominant in the frontal lobe where brain functions such as planning, impulse control, and reasoning take place.
One noted researcher, Dr. Yurgelun-Todd, Director of Neuropsychology and Cognitive Neuroimaging in Belmont, Mass, shared her thoughts with Frontline on what her research implied. She compared and contrasted how adults and teens process information with the frontal part and the lower (amgydala) part of the brain. Below is and excerpt from the interview.
- Frontline: In adults, how are those two parts of the brain related? What do we see there?
- Yurgulun –Todd: In an adult, this anterior or prefrontal part of the brain carries out a lot of executive functions, or what we call more thinking functions: planning, goal-directed behavior, judgment, insight. And we think that that particular part of the brain influences this more emotional or gut part of the brain. Therefore this relationship is key to understanding behavior. Teens (top image) used less of the prefrontal (upper) region than adults (bottom image) when reading emotion.
- Frontline: What does your work tell you about young teenagers?
- Yurgulun –Todd: One of the implications of this work is that the brain is responding differently to the outside world in teenagers compared to adults. And in particular, with emotional information, the teenager's brain may be responding with more of a gut reaction than an executive or more thinking kind of response. And if that's the case, then one of the things that you expect is that you'll have more of an impulsive behavioral response, instead of a necessarily thoughtful or measured kind of response.”
Armed with this information, parents, caregivers, teachers, and other adults who question the behavior of teens, can began to understand that the teen brain is a work in progress.
For more information on teen development, contact Pinellas 4-H Youth Development at (727) 582-2450 and sign up to participate in the 4-H Family Teening -Up program. This program is an opportunity for parents and their teen to learn how to communicate and strengthen their relationship.