Understanding the Adolescent Brain – November 2019
I recently attended a conference given by an organization called Learning & the Brain. These conferences are given in order to bring educators, researchers and medical doctors together to learn more about research on the brain and its relevance to those involved in education. It was a pretty amazing three days and we left with a deeper understanding of the ‘amazing’ brain, its structure, its unique differences from individual to individual, and its plasticity throughout our lives. At Villa Maria, many of our students are entering their teen years and I thought some of what I learned might be of interest to you, their parents.
I attended sessions on the adolescent brain. We learned that one of the greatest challenges of this stage in brain development is teaching young people how to prepare to make healthy life choices at a time when they may have to make decisions such as whether to use drugs or alcohol, choices about sexual behavior, and decisions on what it means to be a safe driver. This is an age when adolescents often use isolated facts and advice from peers to make decisions, rather than more generalized information based on experiences, stored knowledge, and values that adults use. It is time when the separate sections of the brain for cognition and emotion are just beginning to be interconnected, a time when adolescents need the adults in their lives to help them make those important connections. We learned that with help, adolescents can begin to think in more advanced ways using a stronger analytical ability and better judgment.
The prefrontal cortex, which makes up 20% of the brain, functions like the CEO of all other brain networks. This is the part of the brain where long term conceptual memory, the executive function network of neurons, and emotional control reside. This area of the brain continues to develop during adolescence and into young adulthood, probably not completing its development in many individuals until their late 20s.
One presenter, Dr. Judy Willis, who is doing in-depth research on the neuroscience of the adolescent brain, discussed the importance of reducing the stressors that challenge adolescents including peer relationships, test taking, oral presentations, physical characteristics, clothing, language differences, previous failure and falling behind and feeling that learning has no personal relevance. Her research has identified the #1 stressor for high school drop-outs as boredom because the information being taught lacked relevance on a personal level.
Dopamine, an intermediate biochemical in the brain, acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain, along with cortisol, which helps the adolescent be less brain reactive and more in control in stressful situations. Dopamine is the source of intrinsic satisfaction from which we derive pleasure, sustained attention, motivation, perseverance and optimism. For adolescents (and for adults as well), dopamine boosters include movement/exercise, music, humor, choices, and peer interaction. According to Dr. Willis, the pull of video games at this age level is that they act as dopamine boosters. The satisfaction of achieving the game challenges is very motivating. Adolescents buy into the goal of winning these games, even though 80% of the time they fail. Though she recommends limiting the amount of time spent on video games, she said that in moderation, they help young people to persevere, react to feedback from the challenge, and learn about incremental progress toward a goal. She encouraged educators to teach students more about their brains and how they work.
Dr. Willis characterized educators as caretakers of emerging teen brains. She said it was vitally important that the goal of any learning was clear to the adolescent student. She recommended selecting reading that is relevant to them, learning by doing, inquiry, collaboration and discovery as the best means to reaching the teen-age brain. She urged us not to lower the bar in our learning goals but rather remove the barriers. And she reminded us, as we heard throughout the conference, that there is plasticity to the brain which continues to develop throughout life. “Genius”, she said, “is more than genes”. It is rather the collective learning that comes from life experiences, formal learning, and the ties that grow between emotion and intellect. I.Q which was once thought to be the fixed capacity of the brain, is now seen as a process of becoming smarter throughout lifetime.
This is but a small kernel of what I learned and continue to think about from the conference, an opportunity for educators, researchers, and doctors to learn from one another. If the brain interests you as much as it does me, some books that I’ve been reading to learn more include the following:
Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School by John Medina (who also wrote Brain Rules for Babies …
a book I bought for my daughter and daughter-in-law who have
young babies … my grandchildren).
Your Brain on Childhood by Gabrielle Principe
Your Child’s Growing Mind by Jane M. Healy