Letters: Science And Religion, And The Teenage Brain

Hear Neal Conan's complete follow-up conversation about the teen brain with B.J. Casey, director of the Sackler Institute at Weill Cornell Medical College, on NPR's news blog, The Two-Way.

Host Neal Conan reads a response to a segment about tension among Christian evangelicals over the science of human origins. And, having heard from so many parents after a conversation on the teen brain, Conan follows up with guest B.J. Casey for some additional insight into the teen mind.

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NEAL CONAN, host: It's Tuesday and time to read from your comments. Eric Schultz in Owatonna, Minnesota wrote to complain about our conversation about the doubts that some evangelical scholars now raise about the literal truth of the Bible: I don't appreciate guests on TOTN being allowed freely to call us sinners and question well-known facts about the universe with no evidence. I just cannot hear these people question great men and women like Galileo and then get off the program without having to answer to a single assertion made. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Our program last week from National Geographic on the adolescent brain and why teenagers take so many risks resonated with many teens, former teens and parents of teens. We invited B.J. Casey to come back. She's director of the Sackler Institute in the neuroscience graduate program at Weill Cornell Medical College, and joins us on the phone from her office in New York City. Nice to talk with you again.

Dr. B.J. CASEY: It's great to be on the phone.

CONAN: Audrey Balloon(ph) in Savannah, Georgia wrote and asked: How much is the risk-taking teenage brain a product of our time and culture? If we lived years ago in another culture in which teens were expected to work and marry by 16, 17 or 18, and there was no such phenomenon as risk-taking activity, how much of what we allow for is part of an over-indulged permissive time and culture?

CASEY: So I think this is a really interesting question, and Jay Giedd also touched on this when he mentioned a little bit about other cultures where children, in the extreme example, are even married as young as 12 or 13 years of age. So in this case they're moving directly from childhood almost immediately into an adult role. And so there is an outlet for them very quickly to try to recognize new and novel opportunities, but also to have to regulate them almost immediately.

I don't want to say that our children today and in Western civilization or in the United States are necessarily over-indulged, but it is the case that adolescence is prolonged - that is, if adolescence is defined by that transition from dependence on parent to independence from the parent, and its onset starts with pubertal onset, with puberty starting earlier and earlier, and with our ability to be independent from our parents, some of us financially, all the way up until the 40s, when you prolong that period, it gets less opportunities for them to take full responsibilities for their behavior.

CONAN: As they might have been, other societies.

CASEY: That's exactly right.

CONAN: B.J. Casey, director of the Sackler Institute at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. She joined us from there by phone. If you'd like to hear that show from National Geographic on the adolescent brain in full, or read the National Geographic article we discussed, that's all at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. If you have comments, questions or corrections for us, the best way to reach us is email. The address is talk@npr.org. Let us know where you're writing from and give us some help on how to pronounce your name.

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