The Teenage Brain: the Best of Times, the Worst of Times

The teenage brain–a marvelous, somewhat mysterious organ which, if you’re anything like me, absolutely fascinates you. While I am NOT what you would call a science-minded person, the topic of teen brain development has always been a topic that speaks to that tiny speck of a science nerd inside me. So when I heard a brief interview on NPR with doctor and author Frances E. Jensen about her new book, “The Teenage Brain: a Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults,” I knew what I would be reading next!

Every time I read or watch something about teen brain development the classic Dickens phrase, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” bounces around my head because teens and their brains are one giant paradox. They have an overabundance of gray matter (the building blocks of the brain) and not enough white matter (the connective wiring allowing communication between different parts of the brain). And since our brains wire themselves back to front as we mature, this means one of the last places that becomes fully wired to the rest of the brain is the frontal lobe which controls judgement, insight and impulse control. This is helpful to remember the next time a seemingly “smart” teen does something incredibly stupid–they are a walking paradox!

Another way this paradox presents itself in the teen brain has to do with neural plasticity which makes teen brains both more powerful and more vulnerable than any other time in their lives. Neural plasticity refers to how thinking, planning, and learning all influence the brain’s physical structure and organization which means teens have an advantage when it comes to learning and memory creation–it is a true “golden age” for their brains!  But this same plasticity also means that teen brains are more sensitive to stimulation and reward and without that strong wiring to their frontal lobe, teens have to exert a lot more effort to resist temptation. And as we can all attest, they don’t always win that battle. Finally, this increased plasticity also means that teens have a more intense response to addictive stimulus, whether that’s smoking, drinking, drug use, video games, etc., than adults which makes detox much more difficult.

While I could go on and on about all of the wildly interesting studies about teens and their brains included in the book, I do want to highlight two areas of information that I will be discussing with all the teens I know: sleep and stress. Teens need between 8 ½ to 9 ½ hours of sleep and yet only about 15% of teens actually get enough sleep which means most teens are walking around sleep deprived. And being sleep deprived is absolutely lousy for learning and retention because during REM sleep teen brains process information and turn it into memory. So instead of staying up all night cramming for that test, teens should study and then get a good’s night sleep, just like our mothers always told us! Sleep also helps teens eat better and manage stress. Speaking of stress, teen brains don’t have the same tools to handle stress as adults. In adults the stress hormone THP has a calming effect but in teens, it creates additional anxiety. When teen bodies are stressed, they release cortisol which can interfere with memory and chronic stress can cause damage to the hippocampus which is crucial to learning and memory. And the effects of stress in teens may predispose them to mental health problems like depression and PTSD.

These are just a few of things I learned reading Dr. Jensen’s book and I would strongly encourage you to join me as a teen brain development nerd so we can all help teens, parents, colleagues and communities better understand the unique and paradoxical nature of teen brain development.


Additional Resources to Explore:

PBS: Frontline
Inside the Teenage Brain

Steinberg, Laurence. Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence.

Strauch, Barbara. The Primal Teen: What the New Discoveries about the Teenage Brain Tell Us about Our Kids.

Teen Librarian Toolbox
Serving Full T.I.L.T.: Teen Brain Science 101

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