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True Confessions: Terrible Decisions from the Teenage Mind
The teenage years are arguably the most confusing, emotional, and difficult time of a person’s life. Every passing situation seems endlessly important, each day seems longer than the last, and life does not seem like it will ever get less complicated. In addition, teenagers are renowned for their awful decision making abilities. Aristotle claimed, “The young are heated by nature as drunken men by wine." Over 2300 years have passed since that statement was made, and it appears that not much has changed. The risk of motor vehicle crashes is higher among 16- to 19-year-olds than any other age group (“Motor vehicle crashes”, 2014). With unsafe sex, risky and violent behaviors, and alcohol and drug abuse rampant among adolescents, it almost seems as though teenagers are incapable of making consistently well thought-out decisions. What is it about the teenage mind that drives them to act in such impulsive ways? Why is the decision making process so incredibly altered in the young mind? Researchers have proposed numerous hypotheses to explain this phenomenon, and many ideas revolve around changing structures and functions, conflicting signals, and a neurobiological tug-of-war for executive control. It has been suggested that the teenage brain functions significantly different than that of an adult, and because of this, the decision making process is drastically altered. With modern advancements in neuroscience and improvements in imaging techniques, scientists are getting closer to solving the mystery behind the spontaneous, irresponsible, and often baffling teenage mind.
To understand poor decision making, one must first understand normal, healthy decision making. In the simplest terms, decision making is the cognitive process by which humans choose a particular item or circumstance from many options using judgments and reasoning (Sternberg, 2012). When faced with many choices, some people may slowly evaluate the pros and cons of each situation, while other people may immediately decide without much further thought or detailed elaboration. This depends greatly upon the severity of the situation, the chances of each outcome occurring, and the individual making the decision. The human mind is a highly complex machine that is constantly receiving, sorting, and analyzing an endless amount of data. Humans do not have time to consciously spend hours deliberating on decisions. Many decisions made seem almost thoughtless, and in fact, may be made without much cognizant input. The prefrontal cortex is the main region of the brain that is active while making decisions. It is the most recently evolved area of the brain and is critical for long term planning, critical thinking, and impulse control (Sternberg, 2012). There are several effects that can significantly impact a logical decision making process from occurring, including heuristics, framing, and biases. All of these can interfere with even the most logical person’s decisions, but still do not appear to have as much of a negative effect on decision making that merely being a teenager does. Even the most well-behaved and well-parented teenager is a ticking time bomb when it comes to decision making. And now, after years of speculation, neuroscientists, psychologists, and researchers are starting to truly understand the reasons why this is so.
Changes in the Brain
It is widely accepted that the structure of the brain continues to develop and transform until a person is around 25 years of age. The largest amount of change is a major remodeling occurring in the prefrontal cortex. Some neuroscientists have hypothesized that during adolescence, there is a struggle for power between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. During this time, it is suggested that teenagers are more likely to rely on their amygdala for crucial decision making tasks, which is calling upon emotion and impulse instead of logic and reason (Spinks, 2014). Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have also found intriguing differences in the ways the teenage brain functions. One major divergence is that the limbic system appears to be wired differently. While there are not differing amounts of dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of pleasure and reward, the patterns of release vary greatly between adults and teenagers. Experiments have shown that while the size of the reward directly correlates to the amount of dopamine released in the adult brain, teenagers show a very critical difference. While both large and medium rewards trigger the correct amount of dopamine release, a small reward actually decreases the amount of dopamine. This means that for a teenager, a small reward essentially feels more like a punishment (Sapolsky, 2014). In addition, researchers have implied that in the adolescent mind, it there is an almost constant over-activity in the limbic dopamine system that drives many teenagers to make extremely impulsive and often foolish decisions (“There are biological”, 2010).
Inside the Young Male Mind
The juvenile male brain is even more fascinating when compared to its full-grown counterpart. Using magnetic resonance imaging readings, one study revealed that within the limbic system of adolescent males, particular areas lit up when faced with a threat, even though the participants were explicitly told not to respond to it. Adult males were able to ignore the threat as they were instructed, demonstrated by the magnetic resonance images (“It’s common knowledge,” 2014). Other research has suggested that what’s more important than what is occurring is what is not occurring inside their minds. Researchers at Iowa State University suggest that impulsive behaviors and decisions are not motivated choices or actions; they are not thought or reasoned about at all - they just happen (“Meg Gerrard will be,” 2014). It makes the age-old question, “What were you thinking?” nothing more than a formality, as it is likely that they were not actually thinking much, if anything at all. Another interesting study showed that while being encouraged by their peers, the activity of the prefrontal cortex is diminished while the activity in the limbic system is enhanced (Sapolsky, 2014). Both of these studies imply that when being egged on by peers and friends, the amount of actual thinking and reasoning drops and decisions are not consciously made so much as actions are simply occurring automatically, following the chants and suggestions of those around them.
In addition to the over-activity of the limbic system, steroid hormones, such as estrogen and testosterone, are thought to be another factor working against teenage decision making. Fluctuations in hormones affect emotion and cognition all throughout life, but play an even more substantial role in adolescence. The introduction of steroid hormones into the bloodstream mean that even though the brain and body are not fully finished developing, chemicals begin signaling to the child that it is time to be an adult, adding even more stress, aggravation, and confusion. Testosterone has been shown to decrease the frontal cortex’s ability to communicate with and hold control over the amygdala (Sapolsky, 2014). And despite many parents’ viewpoints, a nagging mother does not help. Recent research from several universities has demonstrated that the teenage mind actually shuts down when it hears a criticism from an adult, especially when coming from their parents (Jarrett, 2014). Instead of ignoring what their parents are saying, they actually may not even hear it and most likely do not process it. The struggle for control spills out of the limbic system and into the everyday interactions with parents, friends, teachers, and acquaintances.
The Potential Positives
With all of the negative aspects of the teenage mind, what redeeming purpose could this slow development have? Evolutionarily speaking, if all teenagers acted as impulsively in the past as they do today, there would be very little chance that Homo sapiens would be flourishing as they are. In fact, in some situations, young children have been shown to make better decisions than teenagers. So, why not have the prefrontal cortex develop more rapidly? A major case for the period of limbic control is the importance and power of empathy. As a teenager, the highs are higher and the lowers are much, much lower. But because of this, teenagers are more able to relate to each other, to connect with one another on a deeper level (Sapolsky, 2014). Many people meet their lifelong partner in high school. Many others make their best friends during this turbulent time, and maintain contact with them over several years. In addition, adolescence is the beginning of becoming who people really are. Throughout childhood, parents heavily influence most of the decisions, choices, and likes of their child. However, adolescence brings about an awakening, a realization that they are not their parents, but instead an individual. Without the period of impulsiveness, many of the absurd stories and terrible decisions that so greatly impact people’s lives would not occur. Humans would lose a little bit of their individuality. The greatest part about being a teenager is learning about the world for what it really is, being able to uncover false truths, and making mistakes in order to understand the outcome of certain situations, which eventually leads to becoming an experienced, functioning, and well-rounded adult.
The Teenage Brain Explained
While science is busy discovering the “what’s,” “how’s,” and “why’s” of the teenage brain, the rest of society is living in a world where one risky decision of an underdeveloped brain could have detrimental effects. If a teenager chooses to drive drunk, they are not only putting themselves at risk, but also affecting everyone around them. If criticism from mom does not help and the brain itself is not doing much good making positive decisions, what can be done to help adolescents reduce the damage done during those critical teenage years? How can society encourage teenagers to make better decisions without heeding their necessary development? Perhaps the educational system should try to understand what science is uncovering and develop curriculum that help support the teenage mind instead of working against it. Perhaps instead of berating mistakes and punishing misjudgments, parents should spend more time involved with their children’s lives, not in a controlling way, but instead in a manner of genuine concern and interest. Instead of trying to live their lives for them, parents should embrace the free spirit of their teens and help them develop better strategies for handling that badly wired mind. That way, instead of feeling resentful towards their parents and against the world around them, teenagers will be able to appreciate the suggestions of mom and dad, but still learn from the terrible decisions they are bound to make. After all, good choices come from experience and experience comes only from making a few bad decisions.
What Do You Think?
Would you consider your teenage years the best time of your life?
Florida State University. (2014, August 27). Inside the teenage brain: New studies explain risky behavior. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 30, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/08/140827203544.htm
Iowa State University. (2007, May 31). Psychologist Explains Teens' Risky Decision-making Behavior. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 30, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/05/070531093830.htm
Jarrett, C. (2014, November 27). Brain Watch The Teen Brain “Shuts Down” When It Hears Mom’s Criticism. Retrieved November 30, 2014.
Sapolsky, R. (2014, July 24). Dude, Where's My Frontal Cortex? Retrieved November 26, 2014.
Spinks, S. (2014, August 15). One Reason Teens Respond Differently to the World: Immature Brain Circuity. Retrieved November 30, 2014.
Sternberg, R., & Sternberg, K. (2012). Decision Making and Reasoning. In Cognitive Psychology (6th ed., pp. 488-528). Belmont: Wadsworth, Cengage.
Teen Drivers: Get the Facts. (2014, October 7). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from
University of Texas at Austin. (2010, June 6). Adolescent brains biologically wired to engage in risky behavior, study finds. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 30, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/06/100603132458.htm