Teenage Brains Are Like Soft, Impressionable Play-Doh

There’s a softer side to adolescent minds: they’re vulnerable, dynamic and highly responsive to positive feedback

No one doubts that teenagers can act impulsively or use poor judgement at times, making parents and teachers sometimes question the processing (or lack thereof) occurring in young people’s brains. But there’s also a softer side to adolescent minds. Scientists say the young, impressionable brains are vulnerable, dynamic and highly responsive to positive feedback.

“The teen brain isn’t broken,” Jay Giedd, a child psychiatry researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health, told NPR. Instead, he calls this transitional period “a time of enormous opportunity.”

A handful of past studies hinted that adolescent brains are somehow “wired” to partake in risky behaviors such as drugs or unsafe sex. Scientists reasoned this was because teenagers’ reward systems are extra sensitive, while their self-control circuits are not fully developed, creating a disastrous pairing of unchecked recklessness.

But researchers presenting at the Society for Neuroscience conference this week argue that this isn’t the case.

In one new study, teens and adults played a game in which points were rewarded for correctly answering questions while researchers monitored their subjects’ brain activity. When lots of points were at stake, teens spent more time contemplating their answers than the adults did, and brain scans revealed more activity in regions involved with decision making for the teens. In other words, teens’ sensitivity to rewards can lead to better decisions.

Other research presented at the conference suggested that adolescent brains are shaped by experiences in early life. For example, one study involving 113 men who were monitored for depression from age 10 showed that those who had suffered an episode of depression were less responsive to rewards at age 20. The researchers said this supports the importance of taking seriously and treating problems like depression in teenagers and pre-teens.

In yet another study, researchers found that children who received a lot of cognitive stimulation and had nurturing parents had a thicker outer layer of their cortex, which plays a role in thinking and memory. And a final study showed the significant changes the teen brain undergoes in regions involved with social interactions such as understanding and interpreting the intentions, beliefs and desires of others.

While none of these studies pins down for certain the mysteries taking place in the sometimes seemingly erratic teenage brain, NPR confirms that neuroscientists are in accordance that adolescent brains do not deserve such a bad rap.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Teens Predict Their Own Downward Spirals 
Teen ‘Sick Lit’ Should Leave Parents Feeling Queasy 

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