Mysteries of the Teen Mind


The August 31, 2015 issue of The New Yorker featured an article and book review by Elizabeth Kolbert of two enlightening books on teenage misbehavior. Both books, “The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults”, written by neurologist Frances Jensen with Amy Ellis Nutt, and “Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence”, written by professor of psychology and researcher Laurence Steinberg, offer compelling science-based explanations.

As a teenager, I might have been the realization of my parents’ nightmares—not their worst, by far—but I was no angel. Though I believed at the time that my actions were of my own volition, both authors believe that an adolescent’s misconduct is really the reflection of what is taking place (or not taking place) in their brains. Frances Jensen says that adolescents suffer from the cerebral equivalent of “defective spark plugs.” She writes:

When we think of ourselves as civilized, intelligent adults, we really have the frontal and prefrontal parts of the cortex to thank. Teens are not quite firing on all cylinders when it comes to the frontal lobes… we shouldn’t be surprised by the daily stories we hear and read about tragic mistakes.

Jensen writes that during adolescence, the brain is still building links among its various regions. It isn’t until one reaches one’s 20s or even 30s that the frontal lobes are fully connected. The frontal lobes are the CEO of the brain—responsible for moral judgement, discrimination, decision making, planning and self-awareness—and can act to reduce impulsive behavior starting in other regions of the brain. This undeveloped brain functioning goes a long way toward explaining the crazy, seemingly unthinking behavior of teens who can ‘act out’ without consideration of the consequences. So parents, educators, religious leaders, community leaders, and governmental laws try to do the job of teenagers’ frontal lobes.

In contrast, Laurence Steinberg holds that a different portion of the brain gives rise to what can be seen as reckless behavior in adolescents. He writes that during childhood the “pleasure center” of the brain grows, reaching its maximum growth in the teen years—and then it starts to shrink. During its peak period of growth, other factors in brain function also change toward greater enhancement of sensation and pleasure. Steinberg asserts that teenagers are aware of the risks they take, but they are predominantly driven to them by the ‘high of living’ itself, an experience, based on their brain functioning, that may never be as sharp in the future as during those years. He believes government policies relevant to activities such as driving should be guided by how the brain will affect our behavior at certain ages.

When I was 19 years old, potentially on my way out of the danger zone of crazy hormones and brain activity or lack thereof, a friend convinced me to take the Transcendental Meditation course. I had no idea what it would do to my brain, my body, or my mind, but she guaranteed that I would love it and I trusted her. I learned to meditate and quickly found myself becoming more collected and focused—I had been like scattered wildflowers that were now being formed into a gracious bouquet. I intuitively understood that this was a ‘saving grace’ for me and enthusiastically recommended it to my friends and to all young women. It wasn’t until many years later that research on TM and the brain was published.

Dr. Fred Travis, the leading researcher on the Transcendental Meditation program and the brain, explains, “When a person’s frontal lobes don’t develop properly, he lives a primitive life. He doesn’t — and can’t — plan ahead. His world is simplistic, and he can only deal with what’s happening to him right now.” He adds, “Within a few months of practice of the TM technique, we see high levels of integration of frontal brain connectivity. And interestingly, that integration does not disappear after meditation. Increasingly and over time, this orderly brain functioning is found in daily activity.”

Neuroscientists researching TM’s effects on brain function have found that during TM practice, the brain produces high-power alpha waves, corresponding to a state of relaxed, blissful, inner wakefulness. This coherence often spreads throughout the brain and is strongest in the pre-frontal cortex—the seat of the brain’s executive judgment—enlivening its function. For example, a study published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology in 2009 showed that university students who learned TM showed increased broadband frontal EEG coherence.

I learned more from neurologist Gary Kaplan MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Neurology at Hofstra – North Shore LIJ School of Medicine, who composed a response to The New Yorker article. These are excerpts from his letter:

How do we keep our teens from inadvertently hurting themselves, while each has a more or less under-developed prefrontal cortex, lacking strong connections to the rest of the ‘thinking’ brain? There are no medications that are truly effective in curbing impulsivity and risk-taking. Behavioral strategies and education, as Ms. Kolbert correctly remarks, are inadequate, though we often recommend them. What is needed is a way to bring the prefrontal cortex ‘online’ with the rest of the cerebral cortex…. I recommend this (TM) technique in particular because it is simple. Adolescents learn it easily. Moreover, it is the only technique I know of that increases coherent prefrontal activity (as measured by EEG). Well-controlled studies demonstrate positive effects on attention, decreasing anxiety and substance abuse after only weeks of practice.

Gary Kaplan MD, PhD

About the Author

Janet Hoffman is the executive director of TM for Women Professionals, a division of TM for Women in the USA

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