The Science of Teenage Brain Development
Written by PTC | Published June 24, 2016
Children’s and teen’s brains are more adaptable as they grow – which also makes them more vulnerable.
The memory hormone norepinephrine attaches in about one second in children -- eleven times faster than in adults. This explains why children learn so quickly. It also makes children fertile ground for media exploitation, whether from commercials for toys and sugary cereals, to extreme violent content, to outright pornography.
Additionally, in developing children, imprinting and neurolasticity is also continually taking place. This involves all of the senses and their associated physiological involuntary responses, and includes the release of chemicals like dopamine (which controls the brain’s reward and pleasure center, movement, and emotional response), cortisol (a steroid hormone often referred to as the “stress hormone”), and serotonin (dubbed the molecule of will power and delayed gratification, produced in higher concentration in children than adults, and associated with mood, social behavior, appetite & digestion, sleep, memory, and sexual desire).
Children’s eyes are receptors, and as neurons fire together, they wire together. The same mirror neurons that cause us to smile as an involuntary reflex when someone smiles at us, are also keys in healthy infant bonding, and are building blocks for literacy. But these reflexes are now being exploited in highly destructive ways. This is happening to prepubescent and pubescent children in epidemic proportions, and is the root of many dysfunctions.
Age-inappropriate exposure to sexual content is harmful to children. Exposure to violence fits in the same category; and combining sex and violence in the same product can be extremely damaging. The psychologist Abraham Maslow said that sex is a basic human need, like food and water. After it is awakened and stimulated, it can trigger the “reptile brain response” that has the power to override normal brain function. Simultaneously, the physical growth and hard-wiring of a child’s brain is also impacted as it continues to grow and develop until about age twenty-five, after which time some things can become irreversible.
The last part of brain to develop is the frontal lobe, where reasoning and decision-making take place. Autopsies on school shooters reveal missing or damaged frontal lobes; and one theory is that, for some, TV and electronic media overstimulation can change the way the brain grows and develops. Because our eyes are receptors, prolonged exposure to rapid images used in television and other electronic devices can result in the brain reverting to a lower level of functioning. Combined with artificial light (which interferes with the body’s natural clock/sleep rhythms), and programming content, all may work together in somewhat of a “perfect storm” effect that can alter the brain’s optimal growth, functioning, and development. Food, exercise, and environment are all contributing factors for healthy brain development, and many times these too are compromised in exchange for screen time.
The best ways to naturally improve brain function without the risk of pharmaceutical side effects (especially antidepressants, which carry a “black box” warning of suicide for young people) is fifteen minutes of sunlight (even on an overcast day) in the morning and afternoon (absorbed through our skin -- our body’s biggest organ -- and eyes), regular exercise, and a healthy diet. These are all variables that combine in a spectrum of ways that can be difficult to isolate or identify.
Incomplete brain development is one of several reasons children do not have the capacity to give consent or be responsible for certain decisions or actions until age eighteen or twenty-one. Youth traditionally, physically, emotionally, and legally have lacked the capacity to be fully responsible for, or give consent to, some actions. The brain of a hormonal teen can be likened to flooring the gas pedal on a car in which the brakes (the frontal lobe) have not yet been installed. Teens need us to act as their frontal lobe until they are ready. Thankfully, the brain's neuroplasticity continues to work all throughout life -- "what we feed grows, and what we starve dies" -- and offers hope for their future…and ours.