Sarah-Jayne Blakemore remembers what it’s like to be a teenager, with warring hormones and dealing with social pressure. Her conclusion? The adolescent brain really is different. As a cognitive neuroscientist who studies the social brain, she knows what she’s talking about.
According to research, the executive part of the brain that helps one be self-aware and understand consequences and behavioural choices develop more slowly during adolescence. Blakemore tells us, “So adolescence is defined as the period of life that starts with the biological, hormonal, physical changes of puberty and ends at the age at which an individual attains a stable, independent role in society. It can go on a long time.”
Talking about the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain that changes most dramatically during adolescence, she explains that gray matter peaks in early adolescence. “You can see that that peak happens a couple of years later in boys relative to girls, and that’s probably because boys go through puberty a couple of years later than girls on average.”
To understand the social brain, she brings “adolescents and adults into the lab to have a brain scan, we give them some kind of task that involves thinking about other people, their minds, their mental states, their emotions.” She remarks, “This region (middle of the prefrontal cortex) is more active in adolescents when they make these social decisions and think about other people than it is in adults. …And we think that might be because adolescents and adults use a different mental approach, a different cognitive strategy, to make social decisions.”
Blakemore shows us how risk-taking behavior works. The clue lies in the limbic system. She states, “We know that adolescents have a tendency to take risks. They do. They take more risks than children or adults. …So the limbic system is right deep inside the brain, and it’s involved in things like emotion processing and reward processing. It gives you the rewarding feeling out of doing fun things, including taking risks. It gives you the kick out of taking risks. And this region, the regions within the limbic system, have been found to be hypersensitive to the rewarding feeling of risk-taking in adolescents compared with adults, and at the very same time, the prefrontal cortex, which stops us taking excessive risks, is still very much in development in adolescents.”
She concludes, “So what’s sometimes seen as the problem with adolescents — heightened risk-taking, poor impulse control, self-consciousness — shouldn’t be stigmatised. It actually reflects changes in the brain that provide an excellent opportunity for education and social development.”