Teen Brains, Still Under Construction

By Sophie Angelo
Special to The Buzz

Recently, on a beautiful Saturday in October, I found myself on the rotting roof of someone’s old garage in East Haven, CT.  In order to raise money for a mission trip planned for the following summer, I volunteered to help out on a roofing job.  I was thoroughly enjoying the first-time thrill of being 20 feet off the ground with no harnesses or safety lines to keep me from tumbling off the edge, when my Dad’s stern voice completely ruined my excitement.

“Sophie, be careful,” he warned from the ladder he clung to securely.  “Make sure, you keep your center of gravity low… maybe you should sit?” he continued.

It was a total buzz-kill, and I was embarrassed that all my friends, and especially my cousin Jessie, could hear my dad's precautions. Jessie had been on roofing jobs before and I wanted to show her that I could be just as brave as her. Later that day, my father told me that he was worried sick about me and he thought I was a little too careless on that roof.

So how could my Dad’s thinking and my thinking be so different?  Why was he worried stiff while I was having the time of my life?  The article "Beautiful Brains" by National Geographic has just the answer for why teens, like myself, are the way we are and how we can be so distinct from adults. By pointing out the results of many scientific studies, the author of this article, David Dobbs, demonstrates that even at the age of 15, my brain has not finished developing but still continues to undergo “extensive remodeling, resembling a network and wiring upgrade.”

So what is exactly going on in my brain at this point?   First of all, Dobbs explains that the nerve fibers or axons of my brain are becoming increasingly “more insulated with a fatty substance called myelin, eventually boosting the axon’s transmission speed up to a hundred times.”

Dobbs also explains the process of “synaptic pruning” that allows my brain’s cortex to become better at complicated thinking as I grow older.  In simpler terms, my teenage brain is still a work in progress that will require a few more years for it to reach its full potential.   

What about my father’s concern for my careless risk-taking on the roof that day?  Dobbs details about an experiment in which teens and adults were asked to drive in a simulator alone and then with friends present. The risk-taking behavior differed dramatically between the teens and adults, but only when there was an audience present.

Dobbs explains, “When we brought a teen’s friend into the room to watch, the teen would take twice as many risks, trying to gun it through lights he’d stopped for before.” When teen drivers are around their friends as they drive, they may try to impress them or do something they normally would not, like taking dangerous risks. This may explains why the 15-25 year-old age group “dies of accidents of almost every sort at high rates.”

So was I not being as careful as I should have been on the roof that day?  My initial impulse is to want to say that my father was overreacting.  But, then again, when I think about the times I’m around my friends, I do find myself doing risky things that I traditionally wouldn't do.

Recently, at my friend’s house, a few friends and I were all sitting outside listening to music and hanging out when a Justin Bieber song came on and I couldn’t contain myself. For seemingly no reason, I grabbed a pair of my friend’s shoes and threw them on. Then I took a hat off another boy’s head and started singing and dancing to Justin Bieber for about 5 songs, adding his choreography every few verses, pretending I was Justin featured in a concert.

For some reason, adrenaline rushed through me.  I would never in a billion years do something like that in front of an adult. On the other hand, since my friends were watching, I couldn’t help it. All a teenage girl wants to do when she’s with her friends is have a good time and make memories.

Dobbs also sheds some new light on my seemingly crazy behavior. My “hunt for sensation” allows me to explore “new terrain.”  Something that is crucial for my developing brain to experience with all the mysterious future life changes that await me.

Now that I actually understand that my brain hasn’t finished developing, it makes a lot more sense as to why I may appear more impulsive and careless to my parents, especially my Dad. Dobbs has effectively demonstrated that teenagers give into impulse much easier than adults and take twice as many risks especially with friends around. But then again, he also points out that it is not necessarily our fault but that we are at the mercy of our own biology.

That is why I have left Mr. Dobbs’ article on my father’s bureau. It’s important that he realize that my own “beautiful brain” is a work in progress.

This story was also published in The Branford Patch.