Understanding The Mysterious Teenage Brain

  • High school student Connor Sheehan (No. 44) decided to play in a football playoff game, despite having just completed rehab for a sprained ankle. His team won the game, but Sheehan re-injured himself. Research suggests that, compared with adults, teens value rewards more than consequences.
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    High school student Connor Sheehan (No. 44) decided to play in a football playoff game, despite having just completed rehab for a sprained ankle. His team won the game, but Sheehan re-injured himself. Research suggests that, compared with adults, teens value rewards more than consequences.
    Photos by Kitra Cahana/National Geographic
  • Taylor Dicristofalo (right) got her tongue pierced without her parents' permission while on an "adventure" with her best friend. Her father was thrilled when she removed the stud and the hole closed up.
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    Taylor Dicristofalo (right) got her tongue pierced without her parents' permission while on an "adventure" with her best friend. Her father was thrilled when she removed the stud and the hole closed up.
  • Bryan Campbell (left) and his friends gathered monthly to wrestle and box, often posting their videos to Facebook. Their fights delivered both excitement and social rewards.
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    Bryan Campbell (left) and his friends gathered monthly to wrestle and box, often posting their videos to Facebook. Their fights delivered both excitement and social rewards.
  • Anastassia Kipp, 18, jokes with her mother, Deborah. She considers her mom a role model: always there, and never bossy.
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    Anastassia Kipp, 18, jokes with her mother, Deborah. She considers her mom a role model: always there, and never bossy.
  • Parties and first dates, cars and cigarettes, school demands and free time — teens encounter risks both large and small every day, and their choices can be puzzling at times.
    Hide caption
    Parties and first dates, cars and cigarettes, school demands and free time — teens encounter risks both large and small every day, and their choices can be puzzling at times.

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It's a question that has plagued parents for generations: Why do teenagers act the way they do? Why the angst, anger and unnecessary risks? Many scientists say a growing body of research may provide some answers.

After his son was pulled over for driving 113 mph, science writer David Dobbs set out to understand what researchers know about the teenage brain. The resulting story, "Beautiful Brains," is the cover story in the October 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Dobbs and brain researchers BJ Casey and Dr. Jay Giedd share their findings on what science can tell us about the teenage brain.


Interview Highlights

On why teens need to push limits

Dobbs: "The hardest thing we ever do is leave home. It's hard emotionally. It's extremely hard intellectually and logistically. It's a real challenge. So the disincentives to do it are very strong. And as both B.J. and Jay pointed out to me at different times, if you look at the things that characterize adolescence in almost all cultures — risk, novelty-seeking and the affiliation of peers — that's the perfect menu to actually motivate you if you are 14 or 15 or 16 or 18 years old to get out and explore the world, even though it's hard to do and the risk is tremendous. You have to have taste for risk at that time of your life."

On how teens measure risk differently from adults

Dobbs: "Researchers have actually found that they don't think they're invincible. They know they can die. And they also don't underestimate risk. What they do is they overestimate risk less than adults do. If you screen them for if they understand risk, they understand [it] actually better than adults do. They just don't exaggerate the risk as much.

"And the big difference, there are rewards in some situations — like driving fast down the highway with your friends — that they care more about than adults will, which is why it's not that they don't understand the risk. It's the balance changes. They see more benefit in certain things."

On why teens shouldn't see the research as license to run wild

Casey: "I think it's very important that you acknowledge accountability, because we don't want teenagers to think that they're just free to be risk-takers and that there is no other way. This is a time when they need to explore, but they also need to recognize the limits within society of what they can and they cannot do. That's part of transitioning from dependence on parents to independence and being a pro-social adult."

On how moms and dads can use these developments to parent better

Giedd: "Our brains are better at learning by example and by modeling. And so as a parent, we're often much more effective in just little things, how we treat our spouse, how we treat strangers, how we deal with the stresses and time management of our day-to-day life. So it's not always, sort of, sitting down and having these big talks. It's the little things every day that you're modeling. And I think it's good for us parents ... to realize ... we're always on. And whenever we're with them, that's how their brain is learning how to be an adult, how to take the next step."

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