While average blog readership is packed with the sort of hyper intelligent teenagers that have to be portrayed by 30-year-olds in TV dramas, many of the world’s teenagers are prone to doing stupid things for stupid reasons. New research explains why.
Dr Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and colleagues from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University College London have determined through grown-up scientific research that the brains of teenagers and young adults have more in common with those of much younger children than those of mature adults.
Our brains contain grey matter, which houses the cell bodies and connections that carry messages through the brain. They taught this in high school science, but many of us were too busy napping or reading science fiction novels to absorb this knowledge.
One would think that more grey matter equals more brain power. This is not the case. Imagine the brain as a shopping mall. In a small shopping mall, it’s easy to keep track of all the stores. You know where The Gap is, and you know the best place to park in order to get there. Add a bunch of extra square footage to the shopping mall, and suddenly The Gap is much further away, and you’ve got a much better chance of being distracted by something shiny in the window of Hot Topic or getting waylaid by the guy selling cell phone fobs out of that pathetic little wooden cart in the middle of the mall corridor.
In short, more grey matter means more room for mistakes and a sharp decline in efficiency.
As we grow older, we lose grey matter, but it’s not so much a loss as it is a honing. Our brains shrink, becoming more efficient, and (hopefully) less prone to doing stupid things.
It was previously believed that our brains reached full development in our teens. Now science and common sense have proven that belief wrong. Whatever. We were such dorks back then.
Blakemore and her team used MRI scans to monitor the brain activity in 200 volunteers aged seven to 27 as they attempted to perform a simple task.
All they had to do was run through the alphabet mentally or with letters on a computer screen while simultaneously deciding whether or not the letters contained a curve, ignoring the letters without curves.
I didn’t follow any of that, but that’s because my brain has been finely honed to not understand what just happened.
The results of the tests suggested that the human brain continues to develop far past the teenage years, with the cognitive abilities of the test subjects improving with age.
The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain that deals with multi-tasking and decision making. A large amount of activity in the prefrontal cortex of the teenage subjects suggested that their brains were working harder to process the information, activity that scientists were only expecting to find in younger children.
Dr Blakemore says that this extra prefrontal activity is indicative of chaotic thought patterns in teens, generating excess work.
Blakemore said the research shows “there is simply too much going on in the brains of adolescents” for them to concentrate on the task at hand. That means resources and energy in the brain are wasted, which has a negative effect on decision-making.
And that’s why teenagers have trouble concentrating, making decisions, and avoiding shouting “Wooooooo!” whenever they see something really cool. For those of us far past our teenage years, this explains why we turn red and hide our faces every time we remember high school and early college.
Of course none of this applies to video gamers. We’ve honed our brains to razor sharpness, no matter the age.
Hopefully this article is long enough that anyone who’d actually be offended by it has lost interest and wandered off.