Insights – decoding the teenage brain

Dear Community,

How many of you have asked an adolescent (or have been asked as an adolescent): “If all your friends jumped off a bridge, then would you too?” My guess is many of you – so many in fact that the comedic website ‘Uncyclopedia’ dedicates a whole page to the question.

It begins by stating that this question “is a Zen koan [a riddle without a solution] posed by parents to children whenever a child cites popular opinion as the reason for their disapproved-of actions. So far no one has ever given a response to this philosophical quandary that has been deemed correct by their parent/Zen Master, but many have tried.”

The reality is that developmental psychology teaches us that at no other time in our lives are we more influenced by our peer group and more inclined towards risky behaviour than in adolescence. Some interesting studies demonstrate that social influence can make radical changes to behaviour during this critical period.

Stephen Merrill from educational website Edutopia, explores this phenomenon in an article entitled “Decoding the teenage brain.” He describes how in one study a neuroscientist, Laurence Steinberg, asked subjects to participate in a simulated driving experience and counted the number of crashes they were involved in. The subjects were tested individually and then among their peer group. He tested adolescents, young adults and adults. He found that when tested individually the three groups produced largely comparable results. However, he discovered that when tested alongside their peers the adolescents and young adults began to take more risks and experienced more crashes. Indeed, risky driving tripled among adolescents and the number of crashes surged, though they remained constant among the adult participants.

An interesting 2014 laboratory test on mice found that when provided with unrestricted access to alcohol, adolescent and adult mice drank comparable amounts. However, when among other mice of around the same age, the adult behaviour did not change but the adolescent mice drank more frequently and for longer duration.

While resisting the urge to anthropomorphise the mice (with associated drinking jokes), the results of both these experiments seem to align with discoveries in neuroscience which identify that there is a biological explanation for increased risk-taking during adolescence. Stephen Merrill explains that during this period there is a mismatch in the pace of development between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex. Merril states that ”the limbic system – the brain’s reward system – is mature and firing on all cylinders in teenagers, while the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for things like self-control, planning, and self-awareness, is still busy developing.”

Educational research suggests that rather than denouncing teenage choices we can benefit from harnessing adolescents’ proclivity towards social influence to enhance their learning and behaviour. In practice, this requires empowering students to lead initiatives around social justice, provision of more collaborative learning tasks that provide for social experiences, and appeals to adolescents’ profound sense of justice. An example, again given by Merril, is that explaining to teens that cigarettes are bad for one’s long term health may not be particularly persuasive but explaining that it is unfair that people are making millions while exploiting the health of young people may prove more effective. Merril states that: “Schools are aware of many of these social dynamics, and have used teen leaders, social influencers, and appeals to fairness and justice to change behaviours around vaping, bullying and academic cheating.”

At King David we are keen to harness student voices to advocate for important issues. We encourage our students to take an active stand on issues that are important to them and push them wherever possible to harness the power of the group for good.

Shabbat Shalom,

Marc Light

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