Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Adolescent Brain

One of the (many) interesting aspects of adolescents is the developing brain - especially the prefrontal cortex. This portion of our brain regulates all of the seething energy of adolescence, sending impulses to other parts of the brain having to do with motivation and emotion. It encourages delayed gratification, long-term planning, and most of all, impulse control.

New research on the adolescent brain suggests that this area of the brain actually benefits from learning. Not necessarily book-learning, but actual hands-on learning. In the past, young people were taught skills while growing up - cooking, child care, mechanics, etc. They began their internship in childhood as opposed to their late twenties. Today's children go to school, but have very limited opportunities to be able to learn through trial and error within the safe confines of childhood. In other words, the ability to make mistakes, and learn from them, while being watched over by an adult. This has helped create a very long adolescence. Many parents are finding their children still children well into their twenties or early thirties. Why is this? Could it be because the developing brain actually needs to stretch and expand through experience? Researchers believe this to be the case.

They have found that young people respond much more to the reward systems in the brain than do adults, and what they want most of all is social rewards, and the respect of their peers. They also have a more deliberate response when they think other adolescents are watching. This explains why your normally sweet teen goes off the deep end and does something really stupid with their friends.

But beyond that, researchers now believe that the experience of actually delaying gratification affects the prefrontal cortex as much as the prefrontal cortex affects the ability to delay gratification. In other words, it is a symbiotic relationship. The brain develops as it is needed. In years past this portion of the brain was needed much earlier than it is now. People married, started careers and families much earlier in the lifespan. Now we have incredibly bright young adults that appear to be directionless, unable to commit to relationships or career choices.

So what is the bottom line from all of this? Give your children opportunities to learn through experience. Encourage them to cook, clean, fix things, go to summer camp, go to work with you, donate their time to nonprofits that are building homes, cleaning beaches, etc. In other words, allow them the opportunity to fail and learn from their experiences within the protected environment of childhood and adolescence. Their brain will thank you.


Brian Miller said...

great advice in this...working with kids i see this for sure...and it also says much of giving your kids experiences over just gifts as well...

JeannetteLS said...

My ex-husband used to talk about this thing. He taught middle school kids and he felt that it was so very wrong to put so much emphasis on abstract, mathematical learning at this point of their lives. He was a team leader in a school which had this approach to learning and they started to work together on practical, hands on projects work. They would APPLY mathematics to a concrete project.

Even rewards for effort, and for FINDING THEIR OWN MISTAKES, was part of their approach. They never flunked a project that did not work, where it was clear there was effort. THAT was the thing for them. If they could discern the mistake, and had still put in the effort, they could get an A.

Again, it seems to me that this is related. They were ahead of their time, perhaps.

Whitney Lee said...

This is great. Both of my kids are 'helpers,' and I struggle at times not to hover and help. (Mostly because I don't want to have to clean up the mess!) I will say that we do applaud them for how hard they have worked, even when they don't get things quite right. It's nice to know that the scientists think this is all beneficial.

Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

Great post, Nancy. And wonderful points.

DJan said...

The amazingly plastic brain! I think it's wonderful that e are learning all this about the brains and behavior of the upcoming generations. We are none of us able to imagine the accomplishments of the next generation, because we belong to the previous one. Great post!

Bruce Coltin said...

Nancy, I love this post! I happen to know way too many 30-year old children. Now I know why. Your blog is a treasure.

susan said...

Unfortunately, there are a lot of parents who never learned to do much of anything either - or, because of outside obligations, simply don't have time for the hands on projects that used to be common. The ideas are wonderful but require people to have the freedom (if that's an appropriate word) to apply them.

R. J. said...

What an interesting topic. Having spent many years observing the adolescent brain, I felt that in today's complicated world, that the protected environment you mentioned was important. They are given too much freedom with too few skills and supervision. In the past, teenagers had less complex situations in their lives and assumed responsibilities earlier. Only age can bring about the impulse control needed to deal with peer pressure. Even with age, people will do things as part of a group that they would never do as an individual. Mob mentality isn't confined to youth.

Like the movie Failure to Launch, life situations create many reasons that people choose to avoid responsibilities of marriage and families. Shifting values in our culture leave us with a society that is hard for all of us to navigate. "Peter Pan"("I don't want to grow up, I'm a Toys R Us kid") is among us and growing in numbers.

Nancy said...

Brian - Experience seems to be a key component for that part of the brain.

Jeannette - I think he was definitely ahead of his time. My daughter is finishing her graduate degree in education and student teaching a class of middle-schoolers and has said this exact same thing - they learn best when engaged in a project, and that EFFORT counts!

Whiteny - I remember those days - and messes! I also tried to let them do it their way. I wasn't always successful, I might add.

T&R - Experience counts - even diving in a fish tank.

DJan - Good point!

Bruce - Thank you! I know a few of those myself. :-)

Susan - I agree. It takes time to teach.

R.J. - One has to wonder if these children had more opportunity to try things and fail, if their brains would be wired differently. Or if they had been given more responsibility at an early age - would they still fear growing up? I hate to blame parents for everything - sometimes it is simply a case of cultural changes.

Shrinky said...

I've recently read an article along similar lines, too. This is a well put together, researched and informed post, dear Nancy, which certainly gives room for thought. Mind you, I also do believe everyone, at whatever stage in their life, benefits better with a hands on approach to learning - whenever I ask my kids how I can x, y or z (yeah I know, really sad, they teach ME more than I teach them these days), I always have to say, "Whoa, don't tell me, show me!" or I'm can never pick it up first time around (er, I'm still working on that instant gratification thingie, too).,.