The programme for mating explodes onto our consciousness with the arrival of the sex hormones. That is when the child’s attention turns from dolls and football to the adolescent’s intense interest in sex and how to experience it. The period of adolescence starts around 10 to 12 years with the onset of puberty and goes on until around 25 years. It is helpful to understand that the adolescent brain is physiologically, anatomically and structurally different from that of a child’s or an adult’s.
Adolescence is a period of accelerated learning. It is when we rapidly start seeking out new experiences and skills we need for adulthood in preparation for leaving the nest. Each brain is unique, created and shaped by its own learning.
This accelerated learning happens as the brain integrates the reward system linking the limbic regions housing our memories and emotions more strongly to the prefrontal cortex, the area responsible for self-control, critical thinking, reasoning and long term planning. It is also speeds up connections between those different parts by coating the most used neural pathways with myelin.
After a period of integration and reorganisation, the adolescent brain prunes back unused neurons and potential connections leaving strong pathways forged by repeated experience and habit. So whether your adolescents spend most of their time alone on the internet, or mixing with other young people, studying, learning music or playing sport, the most used pathways will be like fast super highways by the time they become adults.
In early adolescence, the desire for thrills is at its peak. Teen brains produce more dopamine and are more sensitive to it, driving them to test new rewards and take risks. More dopamine also helps consolidate and strengthen those new pathways.
For instance they have more tolerance for gory, shocking, action packed, horror films that would have most adults running to hide. They can’t get enough of them. Risk taking is a natural part of their development, as is testing boundaries, challenging authority, asserting their identity. That is what adolescence is all about. They know that drinking, taking drugs, having unprotected sex and fighting are potentially dangerous, but the reward of the thrill ‘now’ is stronger than worrying about later consequences.
The challenge here for anyone dealing with adolescents today is that the adolescent brain is more vulnerable to addiction, especially internet addictions. Having one addiction, because of the need to avoid the negative emotions associated with withdrawal or lower access, drives the search for other activities and substances that keep the dopamine soaring. Cross addictions therefore are very common- nicotine, alcohol, drugs, caffeine, internet pornography and gambling for instance all stress the system and produce long term negative consequences for mental and physical health.
Living for Now – Delay Discounting
Why is that? Because the frontal lobes that act as ‘brakes’ on risky behaviour have not yet developed and the future is a long time away. This is known as delay discounting – preferring immediate gratification to a reward in the future even if the later one is better. Important recent research has shown that internet pornography use itself produces higher rates of delay discounting. This has to be a real concern for parents and teachers. Here is a helpful article on the subject discussing the new research. The full article is available here.
When we become adults although the brain continues to learn, it does not do so at such a rapid pace. That is why what we choose to learn in our adolescence is so important for our future wellbeing. The window of opportunity for deep learning narrows after that special period of adolescence.
A Healthy Brain is an Integrated Brain
A healthy brain is an integrated brain, one that can weigh up consequences and make decisions based on intention. It can set a goal and achieve it. It has resilience to stress. It can unlearn habits that no longer serve us. It is creative and capable of learning new skills and habits. If we work to develop a healthy integrated brain, we broaden and build our outlook, we flourish, we notice what is going on around us and are sensitive to the needs of others. We enjoy life and being part of the human race.