The teenage brain: dodgy wiring?

Azamat Tazhayakov, Dias Kadyrbayev and Robel Phillipos; all 19 years old

Boy, teenagers can be stupid. Hiding evidence that your friend committed an act of terrorism is up there with slapping the Queen as one of the most stupid things you can do. The Boston bombers’ friends, who disposed of an incriminating laptop and rucksack, are going to pay for their mistakes with years of their lives, but, interestingly psychology is on their side.

Teenagers are built differently. Compulsiveness, risks, selfishness – these things drive the adult population mental, but actually they’re no one’s fault. A new longitudinal study, with £5m for a budget, plans to use high-tech imagery to scan the brains of 300 people between 14 and 24 to see how they develop. The man in charge, Professor Bullmore of Cambridge University, believes that changes in white matter in the centre of the brain will regulate powerful signals from hormones and begin to exert control over impulsive behaviour.

The professor also believes that it may be possible to control maturity – ie speed it up – which strikes me as being a ridiculous (and rather dangerous) notion. Doing stupid stuff and getting lucky enough to make it through the other side of adolescence in one piece is essential to a rounded individual, in my opinion.

This is not the first study of adolescent brains, although it is original in its length and scope. Cognitive neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore gave a great TED talk in September last year, explaining that teenagers have the same logical rule-based capability as adults….But, “the ability to take into account someone else’s perspective in order to guide ongoing behaviour – which is something that we do in everyday life all the time – is still developing in mid- to late adolescence,” she said. Hence the selfishness thing.

The other interesting point is that the bit of the brain which gives a kick out of taking risks – the limbic system – is “hypersensitive to the rewarding feeling of risk taking” during the period of adolescence. Meanwhile, the pre-frontal cortex, which prevents risk taking, is still developing.

So…irritatingly this rather justifies rip off car insurance.

Bottom line: next time you moan about teenagers, remember they can’t help it.

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