The latest issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science came this week and caused me a ‘major’ personal dilemma. My book club meets on Monday, and my Kindle tells me I’m only 2 percent of the way through Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which I will be expected to discuss with a modicum of intelligence. But this is a special issue of CDPS, entirely devoted to research about the adolescent brain—a topic I’m going to be writing a 2,500-word article about in the very near future.
To read or not to read was not the question so much as which to read.
I settled on a compromise. I’d allow myself one article about teen brains and then devote myself wholeheartedly to Major Pettigrew. But where to begin among the fifteen research articles in this special issue? Clearly I stand to pick up some valuable personal pointers from the one on decision making. But I focused instead on an article about a skill that forms the foundation for good decision making. I began with B.J. Casey and Kristina Caudle’s research titled “The Teenage Brain: Self Control.”
The crux of their study was why teens are subject to a 200 percent higher risk of harm during this time of their lives compared to childhood, even though they actually have a much higher reasoning capacity and are faster, stronger, and more resistant to disease.
Before they focus on the answer to this question, Casey and Caudle suggest that many of us may already think we know it. But if we’ve been getting most of our information from oversimplified media reports or from pop-psych books, we may have fallen victim to one of the following myths about the teenage brain:
1. Myth: Adolescent behavior is by nature irrational or deviant.
You’ve heard the pat analogies about teen thinking. “Teen brains are like a race car with no brakes or steering wheel,” the saying goes.
Casey and Caudle have performed some of the research that may have led to popular overgeneralizations like this one. However they write, “To suggest that this period of development is one of no brakes or steering wheel is to greatly oversimplify it.” In fact, under certain circumstances adolescents can actually outperform adults in regulating impulses. Which circumstances? Those in which emotional information is absent.
Adolescence is a phase during which we need to practice independence in preparation for adulthood. Perhaps in part to prompt us toward independence, we also become increasingly sensitive to social cues during this time. Sometimes these social cues are powerful enough to exert an emotional pull. Thus, explain Casey and Caudle, “when decisions are required in the heat of the moment (ie., in the presence of emotional cues), performance falters.”
In other words, the “race car with no brakes or steering” analogy is only accurate in some “heat-of-the-moment” situations. In cooler, less emotionally-charged situations, teens are perfectly capable of acting rationally.
That said, this common adolescent “emotional hijack” condition is not the fault of an overactive amygdala as it is sometimes portrayed in popular media. The “amygdala hijack” described by psychologist Daniel Goleman is a very real phenomenon that can occur in children and adults alike, but it isn’t the same situation we see commonly in teen decision making. And neither is this adolescent hijack the fault of a “defective” prefrontal cortex, as we’ll see next.
2. Myth: Adolescents can’t make rational decisions because of their immature prefrontal cortex.
It’s true that the prefrontal cortex is still developing in teens, but it is not defective. Teens can make rational decisions. Just before puberty, research has found, the brain experiences a burst of neuronal growth to provide for a period of pruning before adulthood. During the important adolescent stage of development, prefrontal connections are far from absent. Rather, as Casey and Caudle point out, they have been there since birth and are continually being strengthened through adolescence by the teen’s daily experiences.
“What is changing during this period of development is the strength of connections within prefrontal circuitry as individuals learn to adapt to changing environmental demands,” the researchers write. Specifically, they observe enhanced activity in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex when teens are successful in suppressing ”heat of the moment” responses, an ability that increases with age. But when teens were unsuccessful in depressing “heat of the moment” responses, the researchers saw increased activity in the ventral striatum, “a region critical for detecting and learning about novel and rewarding cues in the environment.”
You might call it a “ventral-striatal” hijack, in a sense. But this tension between reward circuitry and control circuitry doesn’t indicate an irrational or deviant brain. Rather it’s a natural step on the way to achieving the control and independence necessary to prepare for adulthood.
3. Myth: All adolescents go through a perod of “sturm and drang,” or emotional rebellion.
Simply put, some teens go through a stormy period and some teens don’t, and like all other behavior, the difference seems to involve both genetic and environmental influences on self regulation.
A 40-year followup to the famous “marshmallow study” showed that the same people who had shown difficulty in delaying gratification as children still had difficulty with self regulation as adults in their mid 40s. Clearly, individual differences in self-control can persist. But we also know that self control is a skill that can be strengthened with practice.
Adolescence is a time when the brain is more capable than ever before and is being fine-tuned. It’s a period ripe with opportunity for parents to contribute to the process without taking full control over it. After all, teens need opportunities to practice, which includes being allowed the opportunity to fail as well as to succeed. “Indeed,” write Casey and Caudle, “if the objective of adolescence is to gain independence from the family unit, then providing opportunities for adolescents to engage in new responsibilities is essential. Without opportunities and experiences to help optimally shape the adolescent’s brain and behavior, the objectives of this developmental phase will not easily be met.”
Much like the objectives of my book club if I don’t return to Major Pettigrew immediately.