To their parents, teenagers may seem like the laziest, most foolish, and most self-centered beings on the planet, but according to one prominent UK cognitive neuroscience professor, adults shouldn't hold such behaviors against them - that's just how their brains are wired.
Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a professor at University College London and the deputy director of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, recently told The Telegraph that when adolescents tell their elders that, "nobody understands them," they might be right, neurologically speaking.
Over the past decade, Blakemore and her colleagues have been analyzing the development of the brain before and during the teenage years.
Among their findings are changes to grey matter in the prefrontal cortex responsible for some of the drastic changes in attitude during this time of life.
Blakemore and the researchers working in her lab have regularly been reporting new discoveries of observable, measurable changes in the structure and function of adolescent brains, the British newspaper said. Not only is she working to learn how the mind of a teenager works, she wants to use that information to change education policy to better maximize their learning potential.
"We work with many schools all over London for research purposes, and I hope that in the next 20 years or so we will be applying more evidence-based science in education because at the moment there is not much," she told the Telegraph on Saturday. "We know a lot about how the teenage brain learns and how it develops but it hasn't filtered through yet."
Changing school policies
Among some of the changes she would like to see made: the addition of neuroscience to teacher training courses, and a later start to the school day. Blakemore said that education is nothing if not the process of molding the brains of children, and that teens tend to release the sleep hormone melatonin later in the day than adults, meaning they need more sleep in the morning.
She also argues that adolescent brains have tremendous creative capabilities, and that secondary schools aren't doing enough to tap into that potential. In 2011, she advised government officials to expand their focus from younger students to include middle schoolers, claiming that policy makers should consider the large amounts of new data of brain development at this age.
"Traditionally, policy has focused on the early years; the new research suggests that investment into adolescence is important too," Blakemore said. "The teenage brain is very capable of learning, and this is absolutely the wrong time to stifle creativity. They can do amazing things, and yet schools haven't changed that much for 400 years."
"The more I learn about how plastic and changing the teenage brain is, the more I question whether [what we have] is the right learning environment for teenagers. One of the things I've often thought is that if teenagers were allowed to design schools, maybe they would look completely different," she added, calling for "more peer-to-peer learning... less making them sit at a desk all day, and more self-initiated learning rather than being spoon-fed stuff all the time."
So what exactly are these changes that go on inside a teenager's brain?
What makes them more susceptible to peer influence and more willing to take risks? The answers, Blakemore explains, lie in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that regulates emotional responses and inhibits risk-taking behavior. During adolescence, physiological changes are taking place there.
The prefrontal cortex of humans is larger than in any other species, she explained in June 2012 at the TEDGlobal conference in Edinburg, and it plays a key role in several different types of high-level cognitive functions, including planning and decision-making. It also inhibits inappropriate behavior and is involved in both self-awareness and understanding others, she added.
The "grey matter volume" of the prefrontal cortex peaks early in adolescence then begins to decease, leading to a developmental process Blakemore calls "synaptic pruning." In this process, the connections between cells of the prefrontal cortex that aren't used are being "pruned" in order to allow those that remain to become stronger.
The process is not without its consequences, however. Side-effects of this whole "pruning" process include an increase in reckless risk-taking as well as changes to the medial prefrontal cortex that make it harder for a teenager to see any viewpoint other than his or her own - thus leading to the selfish, self-centered behavior often demonstrated at this age.
The brains of teenagers are also more aware of "social outcomes" and place more weight on social exclusion than adults, Blakemore added. They tend to focus entirely on their own personal surroundings and whether or not something has a positive or negative impact on them, even if it wouldn't seem smart or moral to adults. Even with something like smoking, a teenage brain may weigh the social implications of the habit over the negative health outcomes of cigarettes.
Blakemore said that this is an example of "adaptive" behavior, adding, "You need, after puberty, to go out and explore your environment, and also you need to affiliate with your social group because you have to become more independent of your family... When I talk to parents and to teenagers about the research we do on the teenage brain, many times they say that it is useful for them to just know what is going on in there."