Teenage brains can’t tell what’s important and what isn’t

Teenage Brains Can’t Tell What’s Important and What Isn’t

Teenage brains can’t tell what’s important and what isn’t

Even though teenagers know how important their final exams are, it still doesn’t stop them from putting in the least amount of effort. 

We may have thought they were being really lazy in the past. However, it appears that their brains aren’t developed enough to assess just how important it is and then adjust their actions accordingly.

The funny thing is, as we get older and become adults we are much better equipped to assess which situation is worthy of our time and what we need to concentrate on.

Oftentimes, parents also don’t get why their teenage children sometimes act on impulse or in an irrational or dangerous way. It seems as though teens don’t really think through their actions properly before they do anything.

Scientists have identified a place in the brain called the amygdala that is generally responsible for teens' immediate reactions that include fear and/or aggression. 

Funnily enough, this is the part of the brain that develops much faster than the other areas. The frontal cortex which controls reasoning develops much later in teens. In fact, it is still in development well into adulthood.

Harvard Study

Catherine Insel, at Harvard University, and her team asked young people aged between 13 and 20 to play a game while they lay in a fMRI brain scanner. 

The young people were rewarded with 20 cents based on providing the correct response. But, an incorrect answer would lose them 10 cents. However, when the stakes were raised and the correct response was awarded with a dollar and incorrect one means they lost 50 cents.

"As teens age, they become better at adjusting brain connectivity across motivational contexts, which in turn allows them to do better when working towards a high-value goal," Insel explained to Helen Briggs at the BBC.

Less-developed brains

The results were quite interesting. Her team found that the older volunteers actually performed much better than the younger participants when the stakes were raised. But, they also concluded that there was very little difference when the stakes were lower. Also, the older the volunteers were, the more they seemed to improve their performance. 

In essence, they had the ability to adapt and adjust their performance based on how high the stakes were.

Now, looking at the brain activity highlighted a few things. They found that the improved performance of the volunteers improved with age and how developed their brains were.   There’s a region in the brain called the corticostriatal network which seemed to be really important. 

This particular part of the brain is used to connect areas involved in the reward of certain behaviour and believe it or not, continues to grow and develop until we are at least 25 years of age.

Risky Behaviour

This doesn’t explain why most young people are so nonchalant when it comes to risky behaviour, but these findings give us a good idea why says Kathrin Cohen Kadosh, at the University of Surrey, UK. Apparently, teenagers are much more likely to drive in a dangerous manner, but, if their friends are around this appears to increase such risky behaviour.

Stefano Palminteri, at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, France, thinks schools should have a rethink in the way they test the performance of our young people. In fact, the study recommends that we shouldn’t evaluate the performance of them in a single final exam. He says “A better idea would be to use a variety of smaller tests, conducted throughout the year”.

“We could look at this the other way around,” he says. “Adolescents put the same amount of effort into tasks that aren’t ‘important’, and start to prefer hobbies to school.”

“It could be a good thing, allowing teenagers to learn complex social skills, for example,” he says.

Food For Thought

So the next time your teen is acting up or simply not listening to a word you say, they’ve now got an excuse ;)

Only kidding.

It certainly is an eye opener though and explains a lot.

The fact that they find it so much harder to assess how important something is in the long term makes total sense now. It also explains why they are continually acting on impulse without giving things much thought at all.

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