Adolescence can be a tumultuous period of increased risk taking and addiction. Cognitive neuroscientist Dr Jared Cooney Horvath explains the science behind it all.
Are teenagers crazy?
Admit it. You’ve asked yourself this question once or twice. How else to explain the wildly discrepant, alternately bored and passionate, dismissive and sympathetic, timid and courageous behaviours.
It’s long been known that adolescence is a period of extreme physical change, psychological growth and social adaptation. Decades, if not centuries, of behavioural research have established a rather clear picture of the tumultuous teenage years driven by sexual maturation, identity establishment, and social exploration. We know from research that teens are more prone to addiction than children and adults.1 We know that many teens demonstrate increased risk-taking behaviours (though it’s a myth that teens are unaware of the consequences of their actions).2 We know that during this time sex and sexuality take centre stage.3 Recently, neuroscience has begun to weigh in on this picture of teenage cognition and behaviour.
THE ROLE OF NEUROSCIENCE IN EDUCATION
Before we look at the neuroscience of adolescence, it is worth clarifying what brain knowledge can meaningfully add to this discussion.
Perhaps the best way to address this is through an analogy. There is a trend to reduce sports performance to simple physics.4 For instance, a number of Australian Rules Football clubs employ researchers to measure the force, resistance, and momentum of player kicks. This mathematical representation certainly serves as an honest representation of kicking distance, but these numbers alone will never be able to tell a player how to adjust his/her stance, shift his/her balance, or change his/her pivot point in order to kick the ball further. So what good is physics in sport if it doesn’t directly lead to practical applications? The answer is that it shifts conceptualisation of how the game works. Reducing AFL to numbers forces us to look at this familiar game in a novel way – and even if this doesn’t directly tell us how to improve our game, it may lead to novel and creative ideas worthy of experimentation and testing. This is the role of neuroscience in education. Knowledge of the brain alone will never help teachers work with students. Instead, neuroscience works best when it’s understood as establishing possible mechanisms behind behaviours.5 Again, knowing these mechanisms does little in the way of instructing us how to change behaviour (unless we’re willing to perform neurosurgery or pump a student full of neurochemicals). However, knowing these mechanisms offers a new lens through which to conceive of, consider, and approach behaviour.6
WHAT DOES THE NEUROSCIENCE SAY?
Although there are a myriad of differences between teenage and adult brains, there are three major differences worth exploring.
Nucleus accumbens (NAc)
The NAc is a small brain region that plays an important role in our reward and reinforcement circuitry. When we do or experience something pleasurable, the NAc demonstrates activation proportionate to the size of that pleasure: in adults, small rewards generate moderate activity, while large rewards generate strong activity.
Interestingly, during adolescence, small rewards generate almost no activity within the NAc, while large rewards generate excessively large activity. Simply put, teenagers do not perceive subtle rewards as pleasurable, however, they do perceive large rewards as highly pleasurable.7
It is possible that this pattern is a mechanism behind teenage risk-taking and addictive behaviours. As teenagers require large inputs to feel pleasure, this may drive some teens to seek out sensational experiences. Furthermore, as events that do register as pleasurable do so in a strong manner, this may impact reinforcement of and addiction to certain behaviours.
Insula / right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (rDLPFC)
When confronted with a threat or a potentially dangerous scenario, adults will typically demonstrate strong activation within an area of the brain called the insula. The insula is strongly correlated with emotional response patterns and visceral feelings. Interestingly, when teenagers are confronted with the same situations, they demonstrate weak activity in the insula and strong activity in the rDLPFC; an area of the brain correlated with effortful reasoning and decision making.8
This suggests that adults mediate some decisions based on ‘gut’ responses while teenagers mediate some decisions based on cognitive deliberation and mental abstraction. This almost certainly plays a role in poor decision making during adolescence, as some teenagers may have a stunted ability to ‘feel into’ scenarios – an important capacity adults often take for granted.
Prefrontal cortex (PFC)
A major role of the PFC is to inhibit unwanted behaviours and automatic response patterns. Interestingly, during adolescence, the PFC show both over-communication and under-communication with a number of brain areas.9 Over-communication with several brain regions (especially other frontal areas) likely serves to inhibit a number of desired behaviours thereby possibly contributing to increased laziness/boredom seen during the teenage years. Conversely, under-communication with other brain regions (especially the amygdala, an area of the brain associated with basic emotions) likely serves to allow automatic behaviours to go unchecked which may contribute to highly emotional and disproportionate response patterns.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
As noted above, there are no prescriptive ideas inherent in neuroscience alone. Seeing as none of us will ever see our student’s brains (god willing), we must address behaviour with behaviour. For this reason, the suggestions below are far from novel, in fact, most have been around for centuries. However, it’s possible that the lens of the teenage brain may help you view and conceive of these suggestions in a novel manner.
Never engage with arguments
Adult arguments typically evolve alongside a set of coherent rules which involve presenting ideas, weighing evidence, and attempting to sway opinion. This type of interaction requires the ability to remain dispassionate, cognitively consider options, and validate beliefs/actions. Unfortunately, these skills are underdeveloped in teenagers. Driven by strong emotions, stunted inhibitory control, and a drive for sensation, teenage arguments follow a completely different rule-set.10 As such, there is simply not enough overlap between adult and adolescent arguments to generate an easy ‘winner’.
For this reason, remain calm, take nothing personally, and don’t engage. Ask not why teenagers argue with adults – ask why adults argue back.
Clear rules, clear processes, clear consequences
A strong strategy for working with adolescents involves forming a clear and unambiguous set of rules and consequences…and sticking with them! Involving students in the formation of these rules improves engagement.11 Furthermore, consistency removes much of the confusion and impetus to engage with teens attempting to push the boundaries.
It’s long been established that emotions play a strong role in learning and memory.12 Luckily, emotions are one thing teenagers have in spades! Rather than attempting to disengage emotions, leverage this natural feature of adolescence to help them engage with and personalise novel information.
A large aspect of adolescent development is the generation of a personal identity (mirrored in the evolving PFC connections and NAc reinforcements). To that end, experimentation with personal voice and drive are major drivers of teen behaviours. As with emotions, we can try to limit this in our classrooms – or embrace it by allowing choice. Even the choice between two options (you can watch video A or read passage B) is enough to generate a sense of agency within the learner, increasing engagement and learning.1
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2. Steinberg, L. (2004). Risk taking in adolescence: what changes, and why?. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1021(1), 51-58.
3. Every Parent Ever.
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8. Baird, A., Fugelsang, J., & Bennett, C. (2005). What were you thinking?. An fMRI study of adolescent decision making.
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10. Montemayor, R., & Hanson, E. (1985). A naturalistic view of con ict between adolescents and their parents and siblings. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 5(1), 23-30.
11. Porter, S. R. (2006). Institutional structures and student engagement. Research in Higher Education, 47(5), 521-558.
12. Kim, C., & Pekrun, R. (2014). Emotions and motivation in learning and performance. In Handbook of research on educational communications and technology (pp. 65-75). Springer New York. 13. Zepke, N., & Leach, L. (2010). Improving student engagement: Ten proposals for action. Active learning in higher education, 11(3), 167-177.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jared Cooney Horvath is a cognitive neuroscientist with expertise in human learning, memory, and brain stimulation. Jared has conducted research and lectured at Harvard University, Harvard Medical School, the University of Southern California, the University of Melbourne, and more than 30 schools around Australia. He has published three books, numerous research articles, and his research has been featured in numerous publications, including The Economist, The New Yorker, New Scientist and ABC’s Catalyst. Jared currently serves as a research fellow at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, an honorary research fellow at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne, and director of the Science of Learning Group – a team dedicated to bringing the latest in brain and behaviour research to teachers, students, and parents alike.