Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

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

Our series continues with a brief look at the teen brain. Why? Well, first of all, it’s just really fascinating stuff. But those of us who serve teens need to understand where our patrons are if we are to structure environments, programs, and services that are appropriate to their developmental phase. Additionally, gaining a greater understanding of what is going on physiologically will help us advocate for teens by placing their behavior within the correct developmental context, and by knowing what to do about it.

We’ve known for years that teens’ brains aren’t done maturing until their early twenties, but just what that means, and what is going on as this maturation is happening, is becoming clearer thanks to the newer Functional MRIs (FMRI) technology. These discoveries are fascinating, and go a long way toward explaining the behavior, idiosyncrasies, and habits of the teen years.  Turns out, some of the seemingly illogical, frustrating, dangerous, and otherwise difficult behavior that we see from teens has a neurological basis.

Like a car with a hair-trigger accelerator and soft brakes

Laurence Steinberg, in his 2014 book Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence, uses the above phase to describe the interplay of different brain structures in the actions of teens. Like driving a car with a touchy gas pedal and bad brakes, teens are quick to act – sometimes in risky endeavors – but it takes a lot longer to regulate their behavior and slow down. We see this happen all the time, and now there is a neurological explanation for this behavior.

In the above analogy, think of the limbic system as the accelerator, and the prefrontal cortex as the brakes. The limbic system is made up of a group of brain systems closely connected with strong emotions. Fear, love, sexual excitement, anger – all of this happens in the limbic system. As you might guess, the limbic system in teen brains is highly active, and much more sensitive than that of an adult. In the teen years, the thrill seeking behavior we often see can be explained, in part, by this brain structure. Doing thrilling, dangerous, exciting things gives the limbic system the extra jolt that it is seeking.

What’s more, recent studies have shown that that jolt is even bigger for teens who are observed in these thrill seeking behaviors by their peers. So when teens act differently, brasher, louder, more daring when they’re with their friends than they do one-on-one, it’s not just that they want the social validation that they get from being exciting and brave, their brains are actually craving that encouragement and the limbic system rewards the brain when it gets it.

As all of this is happening, the prefrontal cortex, the logical brain, is in charge of moderating the behavior. It’s the brakes. But in the teen years, it’s still maturing with a long way to go. Teens understand what behavior is risky. They don’t think they’re invincible. But the part of their brains that should catch them and pull them back from dangerous behavior is not as quick as the part that’s shouting Go! Go! Go!

It’s a dangerous combination, and one that we need to be aware of and help guide teens through. That said, it’s a duality not without an evolutionary purpose.

Risk and Reward

The interplay of limbic system and prefrontal cortex incoordination explains some of the risky behavior, but not all of it, and the jolt to the limbic system seems a fairly short lived reward for all that risk. That’s because there’s more to it. The teen brain is now thought to be going through a similar level of growth to that of a young toddler. That’s immense!

Part of the task of the teenage brain is to make the most of its plasticity. It’s very malleable at this age, and that malleability is what will help teens grow into intellectually curious adults: it’s the activities and experiences during these teen years that will reinforce the neurological pathways that will remain into adulthood as others fall off through the process of synaptic pruning. Risk taking, or novelty seeking, is a way to stretch the brain – and the person – beyond the familiar, and to introduce new and thrilling activities that will serve the adult. Here, thrilling and novel could be anything from learning a new hobby or sport to exploring the world through travel, to learning a new language… or less productive and more dangerous pursuits. The point is that the brain craves newness at this age, and it has a good reason for it.

The brain in real life

All of this is well and good – it’s hardwired and there’s nothing we can do about it so why even bother trying to moderate teen behavior, right? Well, yes and no. The synaptic pruning mentioned above is happening as a result not just of old, unused pathways dying off. The pathways that are reinforced during this age are the ones that will stick around for a lifetime. This is why drug addiction that emerges during adolescence can be much more difficult to quash than those that are acquired in later years. This is also why adults (that’s you!) being involved in and guiding the lives of teens are so crucial. When we offer help, lead them toward library activities, remain steadfast as confidants, encourage them in positive pursuits, welcome them back when we see them, and generally reward the behaviors and attitudes that we hope to see more of, we are essentially tending the pathways that are going to survive the radical pruning that goes on in teen brains.

But don’t just take my word for it.

I’m a librarian by training and education, not a neurologist or psychologist. So let this brief overview pique your interest, but please learn about all of these amazing developments from the researchers and scientists who know far far more about this topic than I do. My resources for this article:

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore: The Mysterious Workings of the Adolescent Brain

National Geographic: Teenage Brains

Frontline: Inside the Teenage Brain

Laurence Steinberg, PhD Research articles and his excellent interview on Here & Now

Next week, the 40 Developmental Assets . . .

Serving Full T.I.L.T. series:

January 14 By the Numbers, making the case for teen services using basic demographic information (Karen Jensen)

January 21 Sarcasm, Spice and Everything Awesome: The Developing Teen (Rebecca Denham)

January 28 Teen Brain Science 101 (Heather Booth)

February 4 Asset Building 101, How using the 40 Developmental Assets can help us plan and evaluate teen programming (Karen Jensen)

February 11 Diverse teens, diverse needs (Eden Grey)

February 18 Sharing stories, how knowing and sharing the stories of our teens can help make the case (Heather Booth)

February 25 Empathy, remembering what it means to be a teen and how it makes us better teen services librarians (Heather Booth)

March 4 A Teen Services 101 Infographic (Rebecca Denham and Karen Jensen)

March 11 Talking Up Teens: Discussing Teen Services with Library Administration (Eden Grey)

How we Talk about Teenaged Characters in Books is Completely Wrong, a look at adolescent development

Check out the Oct 2011 edition for more

Occasionally I will read a review of a book and they will say things like they hated the book because the main character, a teenager, “made stupid decisions”, was “stupid”, was “whiny”, was “selfish”, or was “impulsive”.  When I read these reviews I can’t help but think, do you remember being a teen? And have you talked to one lately?

I believe what these reviewers mean to say is that the teenaged characters in a book about teenagers acted like teenagers do and that is okay because this is a book about teenagers.

Here’s the deal, teenagers are very different from adults. Research, actual science, has shown that their brains aren’t fully developed and they don’t even access them the same way that adults do. In fact, the part that influences decision making is one of the most underdeveloped/under-utilized parts of their brains. This is a great analogy for understanding the teenage brain: “For comparison’s sake, think of the teenage brain as an entertainment center that hasn’t been fully hooked up. There are loose wires, so that the speaker system isn’t working with the DVD player, which in turn hasn’t been formatted to work with the television yet. And to top it all off, the remote control hasn’t even arrived!” (How Stuff Works)

Let me tell you a story about my amazing husband (it’s okay to tell you this because I asked and he said sure). When he was 19 he got fired from a job. His car had broken down on the freeway and stressed out and overwhelmed, he really just didn’t want to take the time to call off work. So they fired him. Here he was living on his own, now unemployed, and kind of unraveling. Do you know what he did with his last $20.00? He bought an M.C. Escher print at the mall because it was cool. The Mr. eventually worked this adulting thing all out. He is, in fact, an awesome husband and even more amazing father. But who he was then is miles away from who he is now. The same goes for me. And if you are being honest, the adult you is very different from the teenaged you. If not, you’re probably doing this adult thing wrong.

When adults read YA literature, we must do so with a better understanding of who teens are. Teen characters aren’t going to make the same decisions as adult characters because teens aren’t future thinking in their decision making. They don’t have the benefit of wisdom and the experience that comes from trial and error. A lot of times, these are all new situations to the teen characters in books just as teens in real life are facing these experiences for the first time. As a side note, this is one of the reasons why the age of consent matters and we must stop romanticizing the idea of the adult man with underage girls and vice versa, but that is a rant for another day.

It’s unfair to the literature to put adult expectations on teenaged characters. Teenagers are not mini adults, they are older kids (though don’t ever call them that, they don’t like it). Was Harry Potter sometimes really whiny? Yes, yes he was. And you know, so are most young teens. Are teens sometimes impulsive? Yes, and this is actually developmentally correct behavior, as is being selfish, making bad decisions, and having high and extreme emotional reactions.

Maybe I said all of this better yesterday on Twitter.

Here’s the important takeaway:

For more information on how the teenage brain is different from the adult brain, check out these resources:

Wired: You Call This Thing Adaptive?
NIMH: The Teen Brain, Still Under Construction 
PBS Frontline: Inside the Teenage Brain
A Parent’s Guide to the Teen Brain
How Stuff Works: Are teenage brains really different from adults?