How Youth Learn
How Youth Learn

The Teenage Brain: Research Highlights image PDF SHARE
SEE ALSO: Conditions of Learning | Mind, Brain & Education | Adolescent Development |
Mindsets | Motivation & Mastery | Social & Emotional Learning

While 95 percent of the human brain has developed by the age of six, scientists report that the greatest spurts of growth after infancy occur just around adolescence. What are these changes? How do teenage and adult brains differ?

Why do teenagers seem so much more impulsive, so much less self-aware than grown-ups? Cognitive neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore compares the prefrontal cortex in adolescents to that of adults, to show us how typically "teenage" behavior is caused by the growing and developing brain.

See also:

Inside the Teenage Brain, Frontline, PBS

The Teen Brain: It’s Just Not Grown Up Yet, NPR

D. Sousa. How the Brain Learns (2011).

It will come as no surprise that the adolescent brain is often described as “still immature” or “maturing.” These are kind labels for not-so-kind behaviors: mood swings, surliness, impulsivity, poor decisions, insensitivity (or too much sensitivity), and more. Parents and teachers wish that lectures, rewards, and punishments would turn these difficult behaviors around. Neuroscience research explains why they persist.

In a 2010 survey by the American Psychological Association, 43 percent of 13- to -14 year-olds said they felt stressed every single day. By ages 15 to 17, the number rose to 59 percent. The negative impact of stress hormones on the brain could not come at a worse time. Stress overloads the prefrontal cortex, making it harder to regulate emotions and thoughts. At the same time that teenagers—and their prefrontal cortex—are struggling to gain the self-control and regulation they need to say on track, stress sends them in the opposite direction (Romero and McEwen, 2006).

The most important point to remember, though, is that the adolescent brain is maturing. As the prefrontal cortex matures, teenagers can reason better, develop more control over impulses, and make judgments better. Adolescence is also a period of consolidation, as the brain prunes away synapses and wraps white matter (myelin) around other connections to stabilize and strengthen them.

There is a “back story” as well. The neuroscientist Jay Giedd describes it this way:

“The cerebellum, in the back of the brain, is the part of the brain that changes most during the teen years and does not finish growing well into the early 20s. The cerebellum used to be thought to be involved in the coordination of our muscles. So if your cerebellum is working well, you were graceful, a good dancer, a good athlete.

“But we now know it is also involved in coordination of our cognitive processes, our thinking processes. Just like one can be physically clumsy, one can be mentally clumsy. And this ability to smooth out all the different intellectual processes to navigate the complicated social life of the teen and to get through these things smoothly and gracefully instead of lurching seems to be a function of the cerebellum.” (Giedd, PBS Frontline, 2002)