What Is Your Teen Thinking?! Science Has Answers
"Hello?" my friend Dana slurred into the receiver. I shouldn't have left the phone unattended, but at the same time, she really should have known better than to answer it. We weren't supposed to be here. I was supposed to be in Conversational Japanese and she was supposed to be in Advanced Spanish. Except we weren't. We were at my parents' house, lounging with a collection of friends from a variety of different schools.
Dana came into the kitchen breathless. I was mixing mind erasers (Grey Goose, Kahlua, and tonic water) in impossibly tall glasses someone had brought for the occasion, along with corresponding straws. It was the last week of school! We were half-way done with high school, hurray! Let's pickle our brains!
"You're going to kill me," Dana said. "Your mom called and, hiccup, I answered and she asked me what I was doing here and I told her we were studying, but I think she heard everyone in the background."
"Mixology is an academic discipline, right?" my boyfriend asked. I could just imagine what his face was going to look like after my father lopped his off ears with one of his swords.
I couldn't believe the scope of this failure. That's what I was thinking at that moment -- not that getting drunk at my parents' house (to which they were due to return in less than four hours) was a bad idea to begin with, not that the 18-year-olds we were dating would be in a devastating legal position if any of our parents decided to press charges, not that my mother could call the police and force us to kiss our academic laurels and futures goodbye thanks in large part to the "recreational" stuff in our possession. None of that. Nope.
Understandably, my mother grilled me about my blatant lack of good judgment for hours. For a social butterfly, she has the dynamics of an interrogation room down pat. I broke down despite my best attempts to remain collected and then, still severely intoxicated from the testing of my experiments in juvenile bar-tending, proceeded to vomit all over my bedroom carpet.
Ah, teenagers. They're a sphere of hell for parents all their own.
Photo by lau.
Looking back, I can't tell you what I was thinking, not because I don't remember, but because it doesn’t make any sense. The answer any parent seeking an explanation encounters when questioning a teen, "dunno, seemed like a good idea at the time," is really the only thing I can come up with.
This is not a satisfactory answer. Fortunately for us, science is making strides in understanding the teenage brain, and recent research may have the answer we have been asking ourselves since our babies first entered that awkward and ever so turbulent stage in our lives.
In his piece "Teenage Brains" for National Geographic, David Dobbs explores the findings of a project by the National Institutes of Health that studied over a hundred young people during the 90s, which found that between the ages of 12 and 25, our brains undergo a major restructuring. We used to think brains were finished developing by the time we reached elementary school, but this process continues into adolescence.
The fibers that send signals known as axons are encased in the brain's white matter for insulation, which increases the transmission speed in the same way that switching from dial-up to fiber might do for your internet speed. Heavily used synapses, the chemical connectors that receive and send information, get stronger and those that are not used, atrophy. This process helps the brain become faster and more efficient. These changes start in the back, the area that determines basic behavioral functions, to the areas associated with more complex processing in the front.
"Stronger links also develop between the hippocampus, a sort of memory directory, and frontal areas that set goals and weigh different agendas," writes Dobbs. He goes on:
As a result, we get better at integrating memory and experience into our decisions. At the same time, the frontal areas develop greater speed and richer connections, allowing us to generate and weigh far more variables and agendas than before.
When this development proceeds normally, we get better at balancing impulse, desire, goals, self-interest, rules, ethics, and even altruism, generating behavior that is more complex and, sometimes at least, more sensible. But at times, and especially at first, the brain does this work clumsily. It's hard to get all those new cogs to mesh.
He details the work of Beatriz Luna, a professor at the University of Pittsburg who uses neuroimaging to study the brains of teenagers. "Compared with adults, teens tended to make less use of brain regions that monitor performance, spot errors, plan, and stay focused -- areas the adults seemed to bring online automatically," Dobbs writes. "This let the adults use a variety of brain resources and better resist temptation, while the teens used those areas less often and more readily gave in to [...] impulse."
This same study found that when offered a reward, teens are capable of putting their brains to work to improve their outcomes. That signifies more than we tend to consider when we think about teenagers. As Dobbs points out in his article, things commonly associated with adolescence that are perceived as dangerous -- thrill-seeking, risk-taking, and a greater need for the company and approval of peers over everyone else -- may actually be highly adaptive characteristics, i.e., the stuff you need to do in order to increase your likelihood of survival.
Chasing thrills means looking for things that are new and unusual. The drive toward new experiences makes us receptive and provides learning experiences, and take a big role in preparing kids to leave the nest. Risk-taking, on the other hand, isn't recklessness so much as it is a different way of assessing risk and reward: teens recognize the risk -- they just value reward more than adults do. These two things have been evolutionarily selected for because they're essential to survival after leaving the home and when adjusting to riskier situations in the outside world. Being unafraid to take risks can reap great rewards.
Social rewards are a big part of that. We're social beings and we thrive from our connections. Teens gravitate toward peers because future success depends on connections with their contemporaries more than it does on ties with adults, who won't always be around.
So what is the answer for navigating life with one of the most adaptive (if melodramatic and occasionally reckless-seeming) human beings around? You'll have to read David Dobb's article for that cheat sheet.