O that crazy perfect Teen Brain

Readers of this blog know that I have a keen interest in “what the brain research can tell us” about ourselves, our kids, our teaching and our preaching.  (Click “Neil’s Brain Articles” posts to see more). Not only does the latest research highlight what we should be doing, but it’s explaining phenomena we’ve long been perplexed by. Take the Teenage Brain, for example….

National Geographic’s October 2011 cover story on “The Teenage Brain” has a number of new insights, that if nothing else, explain my own kids to me, and explain a lot of WHY we do certain things in youth ministry, …and help me forgive my own youthful indiscretions!

In Summary:

Brain Scientists are moving away from an “ain’t it awful” understanding of the teen brain and toward a more flattering description called “The Adaptive Adolescent Story.” Rather than viewing teens as “rough drafts,” with an emphasis on “rough”, this emerging point of view, backed up by the latest brain research, views teens as “exquisitely sensitive, highly adaptable creatures, …wired almost PERFECTLY for the job of moving from the safety of home into the complicated world outside.”

Some Details :

Based on brain research, this new point of view sees natural selection at work. Natural selection is “hell on dysfunction” and heaven on traits that help the species, and individuals survive and grow. What parents view as dysfunction: recklessness, angst, haste, impulsiveness, and selfishness, –have survived natural selection because they have an important purpose in the growth of a human being. They help  young humans conquer new territory, namely, stepping out of the house and separating from our parents.
-Take for example, a teen’s love of thrill. Without it, they would only feel FEAR at having to make a life of their own apart from their parents.  Thing is, thrill takes a few years to harness. You don’t want it in a 10 year old, but you want “ambition” in your 20 year old, –especially if you’re paying for their college tuition. And you definitely want them to be independent after they graduate. Luckily, this is what the TEEN brain is WIRING ITSELF to become, …if mom and dad don’t kill the kid first.
The latest research reveals the extent to which the teen brain is wired to take more risks than children AND adults. “Their brain places more importance on reward” than that of the typical child or adult.
And contrary to what parents everywhere have previously thought, the research shows that teens DO process consequences. They are just wired to  risk the consequences in order to get the reward. (And also have fewer experiences informing their decisions.) This, of course, drives parents nuts, but learning from consequences helps teens learn how to survive on their own and achieve in the world.

The teen brain also has a heightened taste for oxytocin, -the neural hormone that, among other things, makes social connections outside the family feel more rewarding.
In additional to the hormones which produce physical growth, the teen brain is also becoming sensitive to behavioral hormones.  The adolescent shift in the brain chemistry is what you need to create a mature being who can take care of themselves, but it isn’t what you want in a toddler who can’t take care of themselves.

Even peer pressure is a phenomenon explained by the brain research. Peer pressure is the flip side of “peer exclusion”.  Teen brains are wired to become part of the tribe in order to become socially and sexually successful.  “Teens are wired to react strongly to social ups and downs as if their fate depended on them.  And they’re right, they do.”
As the teen brain matures, it undergoes remodeling, a “wiring upgrade.” The brain’s neural fibers become more insulated which boosts transmission speeds a hundred times.  Which is to say, “kids really are quick”  …just not always in the right direction. Fortunately for us, this insulation then begins to thin out by late teens.
The brain starts to prune itself as adolescence progresses. The outer gray matter, where we do our most complicated thinking, starts to get thinner, more efficient.  Stronger links across the brain are formed as teens mature, creating better integration of memories with experience, –improving our decision making.   Which is to say, the teen brain wired for speed and risk-taking, and naturally mellows, regardless of how many times mom and dad lecture them.
During this waiting game of natural development, there’s a lot we can still do. As parents and pastors, we want to be STOKING their brain’s experience and memory,  because that is what the brain will wire around, or prune.  We also need to BUFFER teens from some choices or episodes that have particularly NEGATVE consequences.
This buffering is usually what all the yelling is about.  But rather than blame them (or yourself), relax and realize it’s all part of the natural process, ….unless you want them living in your basement when they’re 40.

The Brain Research tells us that YOUTH GROUPS are IMPORTANT.
Family ministry and one-on-one mentoring are great, but the adolescent brain ALSO needs a SAFE & MODERATED ENVIRONMENT to practice their natural  impulsiveness, risk-taking, and social networking. Teens will “naturally” seek out this type of environment…. a youth group with an edge, and if your church doesn’t provide it, they probably won’t come because their brains are WIRED to look for this type of experience. You need activities and spiritual experiences that feel like teen spirit, rather than mom and dad’s idea of a good time.
(Note: I’m not endorsing youth groups that don’t nurture faith and only amount to fun & games. Teens need authentic edgy social groups that nurture. They also need something that fits their schedule and the realities of today’s life styles, rather than the 70’s style monolithic Sunday fellowship. For more about my own youth group experiments, read my article about “Tribe13…a different kind of youth group” over at www.sundaysoftware.com/articles/tribe13)
Spiritually speaking…. the parts of the brain, WHICH BTW GOD INVENTED, that deal with altruism and a sense of “Other”, also need to be nurtured and stoked during this formative period to signal to the brain that those areas are important and should be enhanced. The research doesn’t say the brain’s capabilities become ‘fixed’ in adulthood, just that it becomes ‘harder’ to change and grow certain faculties. Thus, we want to develop our children’s spirituality so that the brain’s neural network embraces it.  Math and language skills are wired in the brain in the same way. By the age of 18, the brain has decided what its owner thinks is most important, based on experience and use, and balances its resources in that direction. Note: Barna Research and other research surveys indicate that “around age 12” is an even MORE critical milestone for faith development. “Early and Often” is the name of the brain game.
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….Now I’m going to go hug my 18 year old.
Poor thing.

Great Bible game software for teens.

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1 Response to O that crazy perfect Teen Brain

  1. Brian Seidel says:

    Neal,
    Great post! I wrote a response to this on my blog, check it out: http://wp.me/p1wwrA-4D

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