A new view of the teenage brain: adaptation is job 1


Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

A few years back, my colleague Michael Miller wrote an interesting article about the adolescent brain in the Harvard Mental Health Letter. I had only a passing interest in the topic at the time, being far more focused on raising a 9-year old and a pair of 8-year-olds. Fast-forward six years, and I now have a direct and immediate need to know more—a lot more—on this subject. I just got a useful dose from an unlikely source, the cover story in the October issue of National Geographic, called “The New Science of the Teenage Brain.”

Imaging studies of the teenage brain show that it undergoes a colossal makeover between ages 12 and 25. During this period, the brain doesn’t grow in size. Instead, it extensively rewires itself. Scientists once thought this reorganization meant that the adolescent brain was a work in progress, and the rewiring could account for teens’ inconsistency, their incomprehensible and terrifying (at least to adults) risk taking and recklessness, and their near-desperate need to be with peers.

New research suggests there’s more to the story. As National Geographic writer David Dobbs explains, researchers have begun to view

“recent brain and genetic findings in a brighter, more flattering light, one distinctly colored by evolutionary theory. The resulting account of the adolescent brain—call it the adaptive-adolescent story—casts the teen less as a rough draft than as an exquisitely sensitive, highly adaptable creature wired almost perfectly for the job of moving from the safety of home into the complicated world outside.”

The move from home, says Dobbs,

“is the most difficult thing that humans do, as well as the most critical—not just for individuals but for a species that has shown an unmatched ability to master challenging new environments. In scientific terms, teenagers can be a pain in the ass. But they are quite possibly the most fully, crucially adaptive human beings around. Without them, humanity might not have so readily spread across the globe.”

Thinking about the teenage brain—and the teenager it controls—in this way gives me a bit more insight into what drives my always lovable and sometimes exasperating young’uns. It also offers some guides for raising them: Be a parent, not a friend; a guide with a steady, loving hand; a protector with the ability to let go; a sometimes talker and an always listener.

And pray like crazy.

The Harvard Mental Health Letter covers a wide range of mental health issues and concerns. It presents the latest thinking, treatment options, and therapies to both mental health care professionals and the interested reader.


  1. Bert Garskof

    The age range discussed does not include teenagers in evolutionary time. Until very recently, thirteen year olds were full-fledged adults, probably mated and parents. If evolution is involved, it is because puberty evolved as the sign for mating. I do not know what this obvious comment has to do with the idea at the “teen” brain is changing, etc. But surely it must.
    Bert Garskof, Ph.D.

  2. Laura

    I read that article and was disappointed because of several points. First, I didn’t understand how the new research alters the view that an adolescent’s brain is a “work in progress”. Key pathways-most importantly, perhaps, the PFC-are still developing; re-wiring is occurring, at a rate greater than in adulthood. True that it’s in preparation of, or transition to, adulthood, but re-naming the window or giving it a “brighter light” doesn’t change the fact that it’s a “work in progress” (in my view :). The brain is experiencing the environment and adapting in preparation for adulthood. Also, the idea that adolescent motivational drive, unimpeded by a not-fully developed PFC, (combined, looks like impulsivity and novelty-seeking in practice), promotes transition to adulthood is not a new one, so I was disappointed in the NG article. I guess I did not see the “new” in the view.

    Furthermore, human brains have critical developmental windows that are “exquisitely sensitive” to the environment, designed for adaptation and survival (pregnancy being one of them), and that’s not a new concept, either; and the assertion that adolescence is greater…..I don’t know if the data supports that. It’s certainly a critical window, with a lot of changes occurring, based on input and environment, for survival, but the most adaptive…..? Seemed more dramatic than fact.

    Of course, as a parent to a teenager, I found it interesting, too; however, having read previous reviews and research on the topic, I thought it was a bit over-hyped and disappointing. JMHO 🙂

  3. Anne Jolki

    Yes John, you are absolutely right! If you will listen teen talks and topics that they are covering when they socialize, you will understand that they actually %80 talking about attractions and entertainments. We must listen to them and give them what they need! And those %20 what is left to fulfill of other things that are most useful for their future!

    Kind regards,
    Anne(a IT Teacher from London)
    [URL removed by moderator]

  4. John Scott

    A teacher in Newark, NJ told me about her success with her children. She said that she recommends that parents be good listeners. “Take time to listen to your teen,” she said. It doesn’t always matter that you offer advice, but always be there to listen to them, even when they may be going through hard times, and after they get to college age as well.
    [URL removed by moderator]

Commenting has been closed for this post.