Brains maturing Gogtay et al 2004

Adolescent Brain

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. The programme for mating explodes into our consciousness with the arrival of the sex hormones at puberty. That is when the child’s attention turns from dolls and racing cars to nature’s number one priority, reproduction. So begins the adolescent’s intense curiosity about sex and how to get some experience of it.

The following TED talk (14 mins) by cognitive neuroscientist Professor Sarah Jayne Blakemore called  the mysterious workings of the adolescent brain, explains the development of a healthy adolescent brain. She does not however talk about sex, pornography use nor its effects. The good news is that this excellent presentation (50 mins) does. It is by a professor of neuroscience at the National Institute of Drugs in US and explains how toxic stimuli like alcohol or drugs and processes like gaming, pornography and gambling can derail the adolescent brain.

This excellent podcast (56 mins) by Gary Wilson does deal specifically with how internet pornography conditions the adolescent brain. He explains the difference too between masturbation and pornography use.

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 by 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 fatty white matter called 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 mental health disorders including addiction, especially internet addictions. Having one addiction can drive the search for other activities and substances that keep the dopamine soaring. Cross addictions therefore are very common- nicotine, alcohol, drugs, caffeine, internet pornography, gaming 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. In short, porn users who gave up porn use for even just 3 weeks found they were better able to delay gratification than those subjects who hadn’t. Being able to delay gratification is a key life skill  weakened by porn use and may account for the poorer exam results, lower productivity and general lethargy experienced by many porn users. The good news is this appears to reverse over time when users quit porn. See here for examples of self reported recovery stories.

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 one. 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 flourish, enjoy life and reach our true potential.

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