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

Posted By Patrick J. Skerrett On October 1, 2011 @ 10:18 am In Behavioral Health,Children's Health,Health,Mental Health | Comments Disabled

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.

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