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What’s going on in that head of yours?

Neuroscience reveals the secrets of the teenage brain

Does this sound like a familiar question? Growing up, you probably heard it from your parents and teachers and now as an adult, you will have no doubt asked or thought this question, when trying to understand your teenagers or students.

The truth is that the adolescent brain is going through a massive overhaul during the teenage years. Essentially, it is being remodelled from a child’s brain into an adult brain and this process takes years, continuing into a person’s mid- 20’s. Interestingly, the brain doesn’t change much in size, the emphasis is on the different parts of the brain connecting and strengthening.

The brain’s ‘Use it or lose it’ policy

When connections 'fire together they wire together', so this is a vital time to develop and reinforce good habits. Any unused connections, starting from the back of the brain in the thinking and processing part of a child’s brain are ‘pruned’. Over time this process of strengthening connections and pruning unused connections makes its way to the front part of the brain, which is where all the decision making, planning and self-control takes place. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, describes it as a period of ‘relatively high neural plasticity,’ which means that the brain is able to be very flexible and can adapt and change a lot.

For a teenager, these years are often the most turbulent when it comes to relationships with family, friends and motivations for learning – at school and at work. It is an exciting and emboldening time, when we feel we have a sense of ownership of our lives with numerous choices to make about our future. The body itself is transforming; growing taller, developing sexual organs, releasing new hormones, as well as developments in the brain. Therefore, it can also be very overwhelming, confusing and can lead to erratic, impulsive behaviours. This has nothing to do with the adolescent’s intelligence, it is because the signals in the teenager’s brain may not get to the back of the brain fast enough to regulate their emotions which results in risk-taking, knee jerk behaviours that teenagers are renowned for.

Having an understanding of how the neurons and cerebral connections are made in the brain can really help with our expectations of adolescents and how we teach them. It is also important for the adolescent to understand what is happening with their brain development. By informing them about this important period of neural maturation, it may help them process feelings and manage situations in a positive way.

Effects on learning

An adolescent’s brain is very flexible and can adapt and change a lot before it is fully wired. This means that it has the capacity to acquire knowledge in abundance, learn quickly and also memorise things very well. If nurtured positively, this can have a huge impact on the teenager’s future. The adolescent years should not be viewed as a period of time where we just need to weather the storm but to proactively cultivate it to ensure new capabilities can emerge.

Some neuroscientists have hypothesised that there might be a way to plan education and teaching around optimal periods for learning. For example, non-verbal reasoning is better in later adolescence and therefore this may be the best time to introduce students to subjects focusing on use of this skill, such as the abstract reasoning of algebra.

Why are my students falling asleep in class?

It is vital that a teenager gets enough sleep (around 9 hours a night) but at this stage their internal clocks are altering too!

During adolescence the circadian rhythms (day/night sleep patterns) change and they are less sleepy in the evenings. Melatonin, which in humans is the hormone that makes us feel sleepy at night, is produced in the brain about two hours later during the teenage years, than during childhood or adulthood. This affects teenagers’ ability to be alert and think clearly in the mornings and it also means that they wake up later in the mornings.

Therefore, it is important that parents understand the science behind sleep patterns, and it is potentially an area that the education system could look at.

This is not a lack of motivation or laziness, any more than it is lazy for a baby to sleep during the day! It’s just a biological need that we can work with, if we understand it. An inadequate amount of sleep can result in poor memory and a reduced ability to learn new things. It can also make us more impulsive and have poor judgement.

Building a healthy teenage brain

The adolescent brain is rapidly growing connections and as a result it can also have some potentially negative effects. As reported in Time magazine, about two thirds of mental illnesses, including anxiety, eating disorders and psychosis, can emerge during this period. The prefrontal cortex and frontal lobes are also implicated in the emergence of conditions like depression and schizophrenia. It is important to stay connected with adolescents at this time and look out for warning signs of a disorder emerging, such as losing or gaining a lot of weight and being increasingly socially isolated. At this age, a teenager’s friends will be developing their empathetic skills so may not be as capable as an adult to spot if someone is upset or distressed.

Peer pressure

It is completely normal for teenagers to want to fit in with their friends. Their peer groups are very important for the development of emotional and social connections. However, peer pressure where the teenager allows their peers to manipulate them by changing their attitudes, values and behaviours to conform can have a very negative impact on their lives. It is important that parents and teachers remain connected to the adolescents to identify any negative pressure that may hinder individuals and influence them to make bad choices. On the flip side, peers can also provide a supportive environment - being a teenager among other teenagers gives the person a chance to develop their own individuality and independence.

Tips to help support your teenager(s)

  • Explain to the teenager about their brain development and what is happening. It may help them understand why they are feeling a certain way

  • Talk through decisions, and explain the positive and negative consequences

  • Provide boundaries and opportunities to negotiate them

  • Offer reward rather than punishment*, and when doing so ensure that the reward is immediate rather than a long-term or delayed reward

  • Adolescents respond better to immediate consequences than long-term – particularly social consequences. Focusing on the long-term health risks, or the long-term legal risks of decisions, does not work as well as focusing on the social consequences of those risky decisions

  • Work with their circadian rhythms and remember there’s a biological reason why a teenager might be struggling to get going in the mornings, to ‘switch-off’ at night and why they stay in bed all morning at the weekends!

  • Teenagers might need decision-making and planning support. Parts of the brain that are undergoing huge development in adolescence are those regions involved in decision making and planning, self- awareness and the awareness of other people


*Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore (UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience). "I will give you a pound to do the dishes' might work better than saying 'I will take a pound from your pocket money if you don't do the dishes'. In either case they will be a pound better off if they choose to do the dishes, but our study suggests that the reward-based approach is more likely to be effective."

For further reading on sleep, Russell Foster offers the following, which you may find useful:

Thanks for reading, if you have any questions regarding this topic or would like to find out more about the Applied Psychologies team, get in touch or call us on 01482 643458.

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