Workings of the teenage brain

It was a chilly Halloween night when junior Jeff Connor decided the inevitable: he was going to sneak out. Despite being already grounded, Connor recalls being extremely defiant in his rebellion.

“At first, I was pretty nervous about sneaking out, but I was pretty mad at my parents, so I was perfectly fine with doing it. Once I got outside, I felt the rush, which made getting to the party and seeing my friends all the more exciting,” said Connor. “It was definitely worth getting grounded that extra week.”

Connor’s decisions and actions illustrate the limitations and subsequent perils of the teenage brain. Though 90 percent of the brain and neural connections are set in stone by age six, according to National Geographic, much of the progress towards rational thought has yet to occur by the time students enter high school.

Essentially, what it all boils down to is this: blame it on frontal cortex development.

Whether teenagers bear constant neural augmentation as a burden or an advantage is a hot topic amongst neuroscientists; however, most experts are in agreement that the neural connections will ‘level out’ for a person at age 24 — for better or for worse, depending on their expansion of rational thought up to that point.

AP Psychology teacher Steve Bohning predominantly sees the decision making of teenagers as a handicap — wherein choices are based on satisfaction instead of rational ego-driven thought.

“Their inner cookie monster; (the id) often wins the battle between playing video games or doing homework, and the inner referee; (the ego) allows the bad calls to continue,” said Bohning.

The framework of the teenage mind is merely a jumping off point into the biological factors for teens’ development. If one was to take a closer look, the basic ideology of processed thoughts and risk taking within mankind has evolutionarily shaped society.

“If we looked at [risk taking] from a pre-civilization perspective, a hunting and gathering society would need risk takers who are physically healthy, possibly to hunt in dangerous situations or play the role of bait. It’s possible they might not be of reproductive age, so they could be more expendable than the wise 24-year-old tribe leader,” said Bohning.

Considering this biological explanation for brain development, one must also keep in mind the social aspect of development. Most social development can be traced back to oxytocin — a powerful hormone that drives the need for social connectedness within teenagers, at any cost.

“It may be that teens act impulsively because the actions of an impulsive teen are often attractive to other teens. Thus, the risky behavior of a teen can demonstrate strength and leadership, inciting to others that he is the dominant male in the group, and the one to emanate,” said Bohning.

The impulsive actions of teenagers stem from their social learning habits of observing and imitating. According to Bohning, role models and parental figures play a substantial amount into the overall progression of rational thought. Our upbringing and the social learning we acquire from those around us, significantly shape the finished product of us as people.

Interestingly enough, the ‘loose cannon’ nature of the teenage brain may sometimes be deemed an asset. In an interview with “National Geographic,” B.J. Casey, a neuroscientist at Weill Cornell Medical College noted that the functionality of the teenage brain is actually quite useful from age 15 to 24.

“We’re so used to seeing adolescence as a problem. But the more we learn about what really makes this period unique, the more adolescence starts to seem like a highly functional, even adaptive period. It’s exactly what you’d need to do the things you have to do then,” said Casey.

While the teenage brain may be wired for success from age 15 to 24, it’s window of compatibility is brief and should gradually develop rationality. The brain, while a continual work in progress, essentially works the same way as a muscle — if one is to ‘work out’ their rational thought it will progress, and vice versa.

“There will still be plenty of idiot 24-year-olds who will turn into idiot 50 year-olds because they never worked on developing rational thought. Perhaps they were never given the opportunity to develop good decision making habits, or lacked responsibility in their youth. The same problems will happen for a 15-year-old who was raised in an environment where she was never taught language. Even if one were to devote day and night to teaching this 15-year-old to speak, it will not matter. She missed the window to learn language, and her neural network cannot be undone.”

For Connor, his response to the question of being given the chance to once more endure the toil and reward of that cold October night is simple — one that speaks for the risk-driven persona every teenager emanates as they continue to mature:

“Absolutely.”