PBS: Inside the Teenage Brain

By: Meghan McTernan

Physiological psychology. Big words, simple definitions.

It’s basically a subdivision of psychology that focuses on the brain’s structures and functions to understand behavior. Inside the Teenage Brain took this concept and used it to understand teenage behavior.
I remember waking up at 6am for high school, dreading every second of it, sleeping through almost every class, going home to a house full of rules, and just wishing I would be an adult already. Oh the teenage angst. Mood swings, hormones, heart breaks, first loves, spontaneity… It all sums up the teenage experience. But why does all of this happen and why to teenagers? Why do teens have such extreme mood swings? Why sleep in until 12 in the afternoon? Inside the Teenage Brain answered these questions and many more.

First off, let’s talk about the basics of the brain. There are four lobes in the human brain; frontal, parietal, occipital, and temporal. This video discusses the development that occurs in the frontal lobe, also known as the frontal and prefrontal cortex.

So, there’s a few special things about our prefrontal cortex. First, this lobe is linked to higher cognitive function, meaning this is the lobe where humans do intricate thinking and problem solving. A pretty important lobe, don’t you think? The interesting thing about the prefrontal cortex is that it doesn’t stop developing, growing, and adding gray matter until a person’s early 20’s.  Scientists believed that most of a brains growing and connection making was done during the early years of life (prenatal-3 years), however new research has provided some interesting insight on this topic.

With this new insight on the development of the teenage brain, it provides possible answers to questions that adults have had about why teens act the way that they do. For example, adolescents are known for making risky decisions that adults wouldn’t ordinarily make. I remember telling my mom when I was going skydiving on a whim and she thought I was a crazy person. Why is there this distinct divide between adults and teens when it comes to risky behavior? Science says it is all in the prefrontal cortex. As I stated earlier that this part of the brain is where we control impulses, mood, decisions, and overall higher cognitive function. This would explain why teens make such radical decisions on a whim. That part of the brain hasn’t finished developing!

This impulsiveness also explains why adolescents have the common experience of experimenting with alcohol and/or drugs.

Not only is the prefrontal cortex assumed to be responsible for the risky behavior of teenagers, but their stereotypical mood swings as well.  Sure hormones don’t help the situation, but most of the blame falls onto the frontal lobe. Research studies were conducted where teens were placed into fMRIs and shown pictures of adults having expressions of certain emotions on their faces. The teens were asked to identify was emotion was portrayed and the results were intriguing. Teens reported seeing anger portrayed when it was actually fear. This made scientists question what parts of the brain teens used to identify emotions. Adults use most of their prefrontal cortex, but teens use more of their limbic system (the emotion part of the brain).  This explains the miscommunication between adults and teens that all too often leads to altercations.

One of my most predominant memories from high school was waiting up at or before 6 am and never fully recovering from it throughout the school day. Then on the weekends I was notorious for sleeping in until 12. It would drive my mom crazy, and to be honest, I wasn’t fond of wasting the day away either. I never understood why I was always so tired. Well, science may have found the answer in our body’s natural sleep cycle, also known as our circadian rhythm.

The average amount of sleep teens get is about 7 1/2 hours a night, however, the recommended amount of sleep a night is 9 hours. According to Mary Carskadon,  as children grow into their adolescent years, their natural circadian rhythm shirts forward. So when teens are forced to wake up for school at 6am and are expected to focus in class for about 7 hours, their body is telling them they should actually be sleeping. This lack of sleep is causing teens to have severe sleep deprivations. This affects their moods, thinking, performance, and reactions.

In response to these new studies, some schools have started school an entire hour later and had seen amazing results in their student’s performances in school. Though these changes have met resistance, many school continue to look to these studies for answers and solutions to the problems with their teens.

In conclusion, this video, Inside the Teenage Brain, had provided tremendous insight to help adults, and teens alike, understand the behavior and changes that all adolescents go through. With new advances in science, many more questions will continue to be answered.

One thought on “PBS: Inside the Teenage Brain”

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