ORLANDO, Fla. — If you’ve ever tried to warn teenagers of the consequences of risky behavior — only to have them sigh and roll their eyes — don’t blame them.
Blame their brain anatomy.
Sociologists and psychologists have long known that teen brains are predisposed to downplay risk, act impulsively and be undaunted by the threat of punishment. But now scientists are beginning to understand why.
“I think teenage behavior is probably the most misunderstood of any age group — not only by parents but by teenagers themselves,” says Pradeep Bhide, a Florida State University College of Medicine neuroscientist and director of the Center for Brain Repair.
“It’s a critical time in life, and a very stressful one, when they are going through so many changes at the same time that their brains are changing. The teen years are actually a very busy time for brain development.”
During the past year, Bhide brought together some of the world’s foremost brain researchers in a quest to explain why teenagers — and male teens in particular — often behave erratically. He and two Cornell University colleagues examined 20 of the leading research projects from brain experts around the world and recently published their findings in a special volume of the scientific journal Developmental Neuroscience.
What they found surprised them — not so much because of the behavior uncovered, but because of how much of it was explained by brain development, or lack thereof.
Unlike children or adults, for instance, teenage boys show enhanced activity in the part of the brain responsible for emotions when confronted with a threat, making the threat more difficult to ignore. In one study, even when the teens were told not to respond to a threat, many could not stop themselves. Magnetic-resonance-scanner readings revealed their brain activity was strikingly different from that in adult men.
‘Field has exploded’
In the past decade, Bhide said, technological advances in such imaging have shed new light on what goes on inside our heads. Now researchers essentially can watch an individual’s brain in action as it responds to various stimuli.
“This field has exploded,” he said. “Psychologists, psychiatrists, educators, neuroscientists, criminal-justice professionals and parents are engaged in a daily struggle to understand and solve the enigma of teenage risky behaviors. Such behaviors impact not only the teenagers, who obviously put themselves at serious and lasting risk, but also families and societies in general.”
Soldiers and first responders — as well as terrorists — are often teenage males and young men willing to put themselves in harm’s way.
From an evolutionary standpoint, some theorize, such risk-taking may have been necessary to hunt, fend off danger or even compete for a mate.
One study, for instance, showed teens don’t interpret facial expression as well as adults do. Shown a range of human faces with varying emotions — joy, surprise, anger, fear, contempt — most adults had little trouble distinguishing one from another. But teens had more difficulty.
“They tend not to identify the finer points,” Bhide said, “and even when they perceive that ‘this might be bad,’ they are more likely to continue whatever they are doing.”
A father of teenagers himself, Bhide acknowledges that individual results may vary. Certainly inherent genetic material, life experiences, hormonal and chemical influences — including those from drug and alcohol abuse — all affect brain development and behavior in different ways.