Neuroscientist Probes Myths About the Teenage Brain (Education Week):
“We often think early childhood is this dramatic window of learning and development in the brain, and you’re highlighting adolescence as a different kind of window. Can you talk a little bit about that?
I was told when I was an undergraduate that the human brain pretty much stopped developing after mid-childhood. From [magnetic resonance imaging] of living brains, we’ve discovered that that’s not true at all—in fact, the brain continues to develop right throughout childhood and adolescence and even into the 20s. That has launched an entire research field investigating the links between brain and behavioral development and social development during adolescence.
What would you say is the most common myth about adolescence that you’ve been able to start breaking down as you’ve studied the neuroscience of it?
The adolescent-typical behaviors like risk-taking and impulsivity and self-consciousness, peer influence, and even the stereotype that adolescents are lazy—those kinds of behaviors were for a long time put down to the individual adolescent being difficult or making bad decisions or being lazy. But actually, we now understand these behaviors as a consequence of very natural and adaptive biological development…
There’s been a lot of discussion of how to look at risky behaviors by teenagers. Could you talk about what you’ve found?
There’s no evidence that adolescents don’t evaluate risk as well as adults. They absolutely understand the risk, but in the moment, … social-risk avoidance and the avoidance of being excluded from the peer group is more important to teenagers than the avoidance of health risks or legal risks. That’s not necessarily a good thing, but it’s important for teenagers and it kind of puts risk-taking in a more rational light. I think it’s a side effect of that developmental process. It’s really important to take risks and to learn from trial and error. So there is probably a drive specifically to take risks in adolescence. We see it even in animals.”
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