Rob Parsons explores the inner workings of a teenager's brain
In the homes of many teenagers a single question echoes from the lips of parents: “Why does he/she do that?” “That” could refer to all kinds of behaviour.
It could be that they seem to develop almost cave-man like characteristics and hibernate in their rooms with their music and their moods. It could be that they scream at you, “I hate you for ruining my life.”
For many years that question, “Why does he/she do that?” has been answered by scientists with one word: “hormones”. The testosterone coursing through our children’s bodies got the blame for it all. And it’s not hard to see why. We could at least observe what the chemicals were doing to our dearest; it was obvious that they were becoming sexual beings.
Such physical development is not without complications. Have you ever wondered why teenagers are so awkward? The problem is that in puberty different parts of the body grow at different rates: you’d be awkward too if your head, hands and feet grew faster than the rest of you. It’s true that the arms and legs try to catch up, but this just succeeds in giving that gangly look. The heart doubles in size, growth spurts occur – usually later in boys but much faster – and body weight for both boys and girls can double between the ages of ten and eighteen. With boys the shoulders broaden and girls put on a little extra fat around the hips and elsewhere too – which is why hormones may be to blame for that question asked in a million clothes-shop changing rooms: “Mum, does my bum look big in this?”
So there it is – all explained by hormones – or rather there it was until recent research changed the scene. Very few teenage brains have been available for post-mortem study compared to those of small children or elderly adults, but with the emergence of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), neuroscientists have been able to track the development of the teenage brain. And suddenly the whole picture of human development has changed. Neuroscientists had always assumed that the brain was fully formed by late childhood, but now it has become evident that different parts of the brain mature at different rates.
‘Terrible twos’ and ‘traumatic teens’
What MRI revealed was that in the early teenage years the brain undergoes another, previously unrecognised, growth spurt at least the equal of the early childhood one. This explains a lot: any parent who has experienced déjà vu when faced with teenage tantrums – “You are behaving like a two-year-old!” – may not be on entirely the wrong track. The ‘terrible twos’ and the ‘traumatic teens’ seem to have a very similar neural underpinning.
The reason that being around some teenagers is similar to sitting at the base of an emotional Mount Etna is that their brains have not yet developed the full ability to control their emotions. The fact is that sometimes they can’t help it very much when they are at their most infuriating. They are a work in progress: neither the child they were, nor the adult they will become.
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