How much can you blame teenagers for their behaviour and how much can you attribute to their brain development? These questions and others are discussed in Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain by Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, who joined Sean O’Rourke to give him a flavour of the research she outlines in the book. She explained that developments in scanning technology have allowed us to see that the brain changes very significantly between childhood, adolescence and adulthood.
“One of the assumptions is that these huge amounts of changes going on in the brain right throughout adolescence mean that the adolescent brain is more plastic, is more malleable and is more susceptible to changes in the environment, to environmental experience than adult brains so what this means is that the environment that adolescents grow up in and the experiences they have, whether it’s educational experiences or social or home life or even things like nutrition and exercise and alcohol will play a role in shaping the development of their brains.”
One area of research that Sarah-Jayne is very interested in involves the developments in the social brain during the teenage years whereby teenagers will engage in risky behaviours in order to fit in with friends.
“It’s much more important to them though in the heat of the moment when their friends are drinking or smoking and trying to encourage them to drink or smoke, the social risk, the risk of being ostracized by their friends and being left out of the social group matters much more… Probably the best way to encourage healthy behaviours and non-risky behaviours is to talk about social influence and how to avoid being influenced by your friends and situations where you don’t really want to experiment, you don’t really want to try a cigarette, you don’t really want to try a drug but you’re too afraid of being ostracized by your friends to say no so it’s empowering young people to stick up for themselves and say no to their friends.”
Another area of research that shows very clear differences between the adult brain and the adolescent brain is that of sleep. Our circadian rhythms shift by about 2 hours during adolescence making it more difficult for teenagers to fall asleep and wake up early. Sarah-Jayne says there is convincing neurological evidence that teenagers would be better served if schools started later and finished later to maximize on the natural tendencies of the teen brain.
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