Brains! And teens.

The thing that strikes me the most about our brains is how little we know about how they actually work.  And we know even less about teenage brains.  Jay Giedd is a scientist who is studying teen brains using MRIs- he’s changed a lot of how we think about teen brains.  As Strauch (2003) explains, Giedd’s study of MRI images of 150 brains is “the first long term-look at a large number of teenagers.”   (p.16) (I would argue that one study, performed by one scientist, of only 150 brains, is not conclusive, although it may bring up interesting possibilities.)

Research seems to point out that “the brain continues to change-it is plastic-throughout life” (Strauch, 2003, p.140).  If the adolescent brain is in a state of flux, it may be even more difficult to pinpoint cause and effect from imaging.  Additionally, the brain is shaped by “synapse growth that depends more on the kind of experiences an individual has.”  (Strauch, 2003, p. 40)

Studies seem to produce conflicting answers about what sorts of experience may be helpful to the adolescent brain.  While studies of rats by Rosenzweig, Krech, and Bennett indicate that a “complex environments make rat brain synapses and dendrites increase,” (Strauch, 2003, p.39), Ruder “highlights a recent study showing how sensory overload can hinder undergraduates’ ability to recall words” (2008).

These uncertainties make it difficult to create a fool-proof strategy for helping, serving, and parenting teens.  Many techniques adults have already been using, (listening, patience, and clear boundaries), are recommended by people such as Pressed (2004) on his Avoiding Evil blog, generating a sense of scientific basis for generally accepted wisdom such as “teens may not understand the implications and consequences of their own decisions.”

Teenagers, like adults, are shaped by a myriad of factors.  Although studies such as Giedd’s can help us develop a richer understanding of the factors at play in the developing mind, teenagers and their behavior are too complex to be definitively analyzed.

Strauch, B.  (2003).   The primal teen: What the new discoveries about the teenage brain tell us about our kids. New York: Random House.

Pressed. (2004, January 13).  Blame it on the brain!  The mind of a teen… Retrieved June, 17 2009 from

Ruder, D. (2008, September –October).  A work in progress: The teen brain.  Harvard Magazine. Retrieved June 17, 2009 from


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