The teenage brain

What exactly is going on in the teenage brain? We uncover the risky, moody behaviour associated with the adolescent years.
02 June 2014

Interview with 

Dr Cat Sebastian, Royal Holloway Dept of Psychology.


We've been talking about how much you have to learn between being born and An arch of colourful party balloonsgrowing up and going to school. But we all know what happens when you get to the end of being a child. You become a teenager and something changes. But what's going on in their brain that makes them different to children and adults? Cat Sebastian from the Royal Holloway Department of Psychology explained all to Ginny Smith.

Cat - Well, I think the first thing to say is that, being a teenager can be a very stressful time. There's new social pressures, there's new academic pressures, there's physical pressures. Your body is changing quite a lot. And also, what we've learned in the last 15 years or so is that there's a lot of brain development that's still going on during those important teenage years. So, one theory about why adolescents may be particularly prone to risk-taking or feeling sort of more emotional or having mood swings is that different parts of the brain are maturing at different rates.

So, one theory is that parts of the brain involved in processing emotions such as a region of the brain called amygdala may mature earlier than other parts of the brain involved in actually controlling or regulating those emotions. So, one part of the brain that I've been studying is the prefrontal cortex. So, that's the part of the brain right at the very front. This is the part of the brain which is particularly large in humans and also takes the longest time to develop. So, it's responsible for some of our most complex behaviours. So, things like working memory and reasoning that we've heard about so far but also, social and emotional behaviours. So pre-frontal cortex may help you to regulate or control emotions and to help you present yourself to the world in a way that you would like other people to see you. So, during adolescence, you're sort of like a fast car with poor brakes.

Ginny - What kind of tasks do you use to look at this kind of behaviour in teenagers?

Cat - So, at the moment, I'm involved in a study where we're going into schools and testing whole classrooms of teenagers on a number of tasks, looking at emotion regulation. So, one of the tasks that we're looking at is studying the strategies that teenagers use to regulate or control their emotions. So, we might show a teenager a picture that may evoke sort of slight emotion, so, for example, a person at a graveside, something that will evoke some sort of emotion and ask people first of all, just to look at the picture and rate how it makes them feel. But also then to use strategies to change the way they feel about that picture. So for example, you could use a strategy of saying, "Well, it's not real. These are just actors in a film." Or you could say, use a distancing strategy, "Oh well, that happened a long time ago. Everyone is feeling a lot better now." And these sort of strategies are strongly related to mental health in real life. So people who are able in real life to use strategies to change the way they're feeling to make themselves feel better about the world tend to be less likely to suffer for anxiety symptoms, depression and aggressive behaviour. So, that's one of the types of task that we use.

Ginny - Do you see that they do something different to what adults or children would do in those situations?

Cat - There's evidence that your ability to use those sorts of reappraisal strategies does improve as you get older. But also, as you get older, you rely less on a strategy called suppression. So, that's the sort of proverbial, keeping a stiff upper lip and not showing anyone your emotions. So, that's actually not a very helpful strategy for people to use when they're controlling their emotions to keep it sort of bottled-up inside. And there's evidence that as you get older, you become a little bit better at not doing that.

Another thing that I've looked at is how the brain changes between adolescence and adulthood during emotional tasks. So, we had one study where we asked teenagers and adults to play a social rejection game. So, they were playing a game of catch over the internet with some other players and at a certain point in the game, the other players stopped throwing the ball to the participant. What we found was that the teenagers were activating a part of their brain called the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex to a lesser extent than the adults were. So, this is a part of the brain in that prefrontal cortex region which has been associated in previous studies with the ability to control emotions. So, it was interesting to us that the teenagers actually seem to be using this part of the brain a bit less than the adults were when they were being rejected.

Ginny - Anyone got any questions about teenagers and their brains and their behaviour?

Simon - Simon from Bassingbourn. What are the commonly understood processes that develop in teenagers in terms of their brain development and changes of functions?

Cat - So, we know that considerable development is still going on. So, academically of course, teenagers are able to complete much more difficult assignments than younger children but in terms of what we study, we know that things like executive functions are still improving in adolescents. So, that's actually a relatively recent finding, adolescence has been quite neglected as an area of study. People thought that adolescents cognitively were sort of just like sort of larger children who sort of gradually got better. But we're seeing that actually, adolescents are improving in a whole host of sort of social and emotional functions. They're also becoming better at what we call theory of mind so, the ability to understand what another person might be thinking or feeling. So, the improvements that we see are quite subtle but they allow the adolescent to negotiate an increasingly complex social world better than does a younger child.

Ginny - Kate, did you have a question from the audience, on Twitter?

Kate - I've got one from Facebook.  Favour Nkwocha asks, "What age is the peak for learning?"

Ginny - Who wants to come in on that first of all?

Kate - Fight over which of your specialisations are the best.

Ginny - Susan, do you want to come in on that to start with?

Susan - So, in terms of language, we're seeing most language learning that we're doing is as young children, children going through primary school. But that's not to say that language learning doesn't continue to a lesser degree throughout adolescence and indeed into adulthood. So, if we think of new vocabulary, we're learning that all the time, there's lots of new words like Twitter, that come along and we all know what they are and we learn them as we go along.

Ginny - Sarah, is there a peak time for learning about science?

Sarah - I want to say no. It just makes me think about one of the founding fathers in my field, Piaget, who some of you may have heard of, had this theory that there were certain ages at which children learned certain things. And I think that it's really important to know that these days, people don't really believe that anymore. Actually, it's really complicated. Children learn things a lot younger than we originally thought and even adults can still learn things due to neural plasticity. So, a lot of learning happens all the time.

Ginny - We've got about 5 more minutes for questions for the whole panel and then we're going to finish off with one more experiment. So, has anyone got any questions on any aspect of what we've talked about tonight - how babies learn about the world through language, memory, learning about science and the world around you, all the way up until teenagers? Anyone got any more general questions? Yeah, one at the back.

Sarah - I have a question relating to adolescents and their emotional processes.  I'm Sarah from Ohio in the United States by the way. Basically, are there ways that adults can help the adolescents learn these strategies or is it just up to them to develop it as individuals?

Ginny - Cat...

Cat - Yeah, so I think that's a really important question particularly with adolescence being a time where people are vulnerable to psychological disorders such as anxiety, depression and aggressive behaviour. So, I think people are waking up to the idea that it's really important to train emotion regulation perhaps as part of the school environment. And that there was a recent push for social and emotional aspects of learning to actually take a larger role in the curriculum and I think there are a number of techniques that have been tried so far. I don't think there are any that have been rolled out nationally, but for example, one thing that I know has been very popular at the moment is mindfulness training. So, this is a sort of form of meditation where you're taught to focus on the here and now as opposed to letting your thoughts sort of spiral out of control. And this has been shown in sort of small trials so far to be quite helpful in improving symptoms of anxiety and depression. We're also interested in this idea of reappraisal as a way of kind of actively allowing you to regulate your emotions. But I would imagine that that's something that takes practice. So, one thing that I'm quite interested in is the idea that you learn to regulate your emotions across adolescence. So just as you have more exposure to emotion provoking events, you learn through experience to modulate your own emotional reactions. So, I think it will be a bit of both - one, that it's just experience dependent building up a sort of reservoir of strategies to help you control your emotions and two, seeing if there is anything that we can do as adults to bolster that natural maturational process.

Ginny - Hannah, do you have a question that's come in for us?

Hannah - Yeah, it's really linked to what you've just said actually. So, Jeff comments via Twitter. He says, "If you're suffering from anxiety..." He heard earlier that you can decrease your ability to learn if you're having a high emotional response. Is that the case even if you're having treatment for anxiety and what can he do to help with his anxiety and help with his capabilities of learning and also, remembering things?

Ginny - Joni, did you want to jump in?

Joni - I think that when it comes to these kind of issues or if you have anxiety symptoms or any other kind of emotional response, it does come about. It does impact on your memory abilities. It will impact on learning. So, I think this really kind of takes us into the field of thinking about, we're all experts here. We all work in different areas. Probably, we're all thinking about interventions for our particular area. What we probably need to think about is, sort of doing these interventions together and thinking perhaps about ways that we can try to regulate and control emotions, and then that might actually allow us to then take on another intervention such as trying to improve our memory abilities.

Ginny - To finish us off, Cat, you had us give everyone a balloon. Why have you done that?

Cat - So this is a task that is normally done on a computer. But today, we're going to do it in real life. It's called the balloon risk task. This is used both in adolescents and also adults to measure impulsivity or risk taking. What you'll need to do is to blow the balloon up as large as you dare before it pops. The one who blows up their balloon the largest is the winner. However, there is of course the chance that the larger you blow it up, the more likely it will be to pop. So, we'll get to see who are the risk takers among you, who likes to play it safe, and who judges the balance very well and can win the game.

Kate - I can see everyone is stretching their balloons in preparation. They want to get going.

Ginny - I'm getting a bit dizzy.

Kate - Is anyone getting dizzy? Is he going to stop or do you think it will pop? Who popped their balloon?

David - I'm David from Cambridge.

Kate - Do you consider yourself a risk taking person, David?

David - Not ordinarily, no. But I thought, why not tonight. What's the worst that can happen?

Kate - Why not in this situation?

Scott - I'm Scott from Dumfries. Yeah, I'm a risk taker. I don't have much to lose. So, I gave it a shot.

Kate - Nothing to lose, so why not pop a balloon. Okay, is everyone finished? Can everyone hold their balloons in the air and we'll see who the most risk-taking is? I think this green one at the front over here is the winner. Hello, sir. Name and where are you from?

Simon - Simon from Melbourn.

Kate - Do you normally find that you are able to balance risk? That you want to take risk but you know when to stop?

Simon - Yes. I know that that bursting isn't a big deal, so I'm prepared to take that risk.

Kate - Cat, people have said that because the balloon popping isn't that big a deal, they're happy to take the risk this time but if it was something bigger, they wouldn't take the risk. Is that something that we see in teenagers?

Cat - So, it's definitely true that when the stakes are small, people will take bigger risks. However, an analogue of this task has been used in a driving simulator with teenagers and the researchers found that when the teenagers were with their friends, they were willing to take more risks than when they were alone. This translates into what we see in real life. So, we see that even when stakes are higher, for example, the risk of getting into road traffic accidents, that this sort of risk taking can be seen and also, that the influence of peers is very important as well. So, even though the risks in this task was small, it does generalise to real-world situations as well.

Kate - So, if the person next to you has a large balloon, be careful on the journey home please. Whatever happens.


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