The Teen Brain
Not only is Frances Jensen a neurologist, and an expert on the adolescent brain, she is the single mother of two boys who are now in their 20’s. She set out to learn about the teenage brain from the perspective of a scientist and as a parent.
When they get to a certain age, teens undergo physical changes that trick us into seeing them as adults. In fact, until the early 20th century, economic factors caused us to treat them like junior adults. The old assumption was that brain growth was complete during childhood and that the adolescent brain was the same as the adult brain.
They may look older, but…
Synapses and Science
There is rapidly advancing science that examines how different the teenage brain is from everyone else’s. The differences allow them to learn faster, be intellectually flexible, and more open to discovery.
Information flows from neuron to neuron over synapses. The synapses are where brain cells connect and communicate with each other. Thinking, feeling, and movement all depend on the quality of the transmission.
Recent findings in neuroplasticity show that neural connections can be made throughout our lives. As connections are made, myelin is formed around brain cells. The last major connections are made to the pre-frontal lobe and the frontal lobe. The pre-frontal lobe is the place for decision-making, personality, and social behavior. The frontal lobe is the area responsible for judgment, empathy, planning, reason, and impulse control. This happens in the mid-to-late 20’s (and sometimes beyond).
We live in a fast-paced, overly stimulating world. When faced with the attractions, stresses, and challenges of modern society, the absence of things like reason and impulse control can be a problem.
Teens operate a lot of the time from the limbic part of the brain. This is the section of the brain that drives sexual desire and risk. It is also the part that seeks novelty. That means it’s not all bad.
This is also where learning comes from. In fact, with the right environmental enrichment, the IQ can go up in teens because of the drive for novelty and the effects of neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity also means that the reward-seeking part of the brain is more active and it’s learning quickly. This makes experiences with addictive substances more negatively impactful. It is also a time when various forms of mental illness can take root.
As adults and parents, we play a critical role in the teen years. We need to serve as a substitute for the frontal lobe while it develops. While this is a time of rapid learning for young people, it is also a dangerous time. Excess stimulation and dangerous attractions create information overload and vulnerability.
Adults who understand the strengths and weaknesses of this developing mind can serve as a source of wisdom and judgment. We can become the gatekeepers for good decisions. We need show more patience in our communications with young people to make that work
The dumb things that kids do shouldn’t define them.
The Role of Adults
As parents, educators, and guardians, we are taking this exciting trip along with the young people in our lives. A healthy brain leads to healthy behaviors which also leads to a healthy body.
Some of the things we can do are:
- Provide a calm, organized environment for teens to learn and study in;
- Be patient in our communication with them;
- Pay attention to negative stimuli and serve as the “gatekeepers” when needed;
- Model the behavior and communication we’d like from them.
Adolescence is a time for testing and building on strengths as well as a time for finding weaknesses, and addressing those. Much of the time, it’s just about making it through to the other side.
You can get The Teenage Brain here.
Interview notes for the show:
Hey. Welcome back to the Health Bridge. Dr. Pedram Shojai. Here today with a neurologist who’s got a great story and one that’s really important for any of us who have kids. Dr. Frances Jensen. She’s at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania. She is the chair of the neurology department . She has a New York Times bestseller out that I don’t need to read quite yet. I’ve already perused through, my kids aren’t quite there. It’s called the Teenage Brain. She’s a single mother of two sons. I love the subtitle of this book, a neurologist survival guide to raising adolescents and young adults. This is a big stressor for most of us in our lives. Let’s jump in. Welcome to the show Doc.
Nice to see you.
The Developing Teenage Brain
Yeah great. What is it about teens that requires a survival guide? How did we get in this mess?
Well, the big news here is that probably in the last decade and a half there’s been a lot of new science both coming from cellular, molecular, animal models and also human studies because of advance neuro -, they’re really shedding light on how different the adolescent period is from childhood versus adults. I think it was thought probably literally up until 15 years ago that an adolescent was simply an adult with fewer miles on them and that their brains were basically done, their bodies were done so of course their brains would be done. Right? Of course, that’s not true at all. There is a lot of really amazing science now to say that the brain, which is the most complex organ in our body in our body takes, not surprisingly, the longest to develop and mature. It is the last organ in the body to mature, takes until the mid to late twenties. There are some gender differences with males being a couple years behind females on, they catch up, but they’re a little later to develop and they’re some very big differences it turns out in adolescence compared to childhood or adulthood.
I usually start by saying that there are sort of two important messages that we can develop in talking a little further. One is that the brain is … Actually there are strengths in adolescence they’ll never have again but they’re relative weaknesses because they haven’t made it to an adult stage yet. What are the strengths. The brain is very much more active in childhood and adolescence. Our brain cells called neurons connect to each other by something called synapses, little places, connection points, When you have a thought or when you’re practicing your golf swing, as you practice and practice, these connection points get stronger. That capacity, first of all, adolescents and children have more synapses than adults do, so they have a competitive edge and they can build them faster than we can, so their memory can actually be better and they can learn faster. We know this, in fact, children can learn two and three languages flawlessly, whereas we really struggle as adults to get that. We get there but it takes a lot longer.
The machinery for this process is at higher levels in development, highest in childhood coming down in adolescence to sort of boring, old adults. You know when we get to adulthood. That’s a strength, mostly. The weakness they have is that different brain areas are connected up to one another by pathways that have to be insulated just like a rubber wire insulation to make the connection go faster. Our signals in our brain are truly electrical and therefore they require the same kind of insulation as it would be for an electrical wire. We don’t have rubber in our brains, we have something called myelin, a fatty substance, but that process, that wrapping of all of these pathways …
We have miles of pathways in our brains going back and forth and down to our spinal cord. That pathway process of strengthening goes from the back all the way to the front, in that order. The last place to connect in your late twenties is your frontal lobe and that’s a process. It’s the last place to fully connect, the frontal lobe and you’ll smile when I say this. What are its functions? It’s executive function: impulse control, judgement, empathy, reasoning, these are all things that while an adolescent has their frontal lobe, it’s not connected in a super fast way. For the on the spot, second by second access to that kind of reasoning and impulse control, they don’t have. That’s a relative weakness. Just in a nutshell sometimes we say that the adolescent brain is like a Ferrari with weak brakes.
Alternatives To ADHD Drugs Like Ritalin and Adderall
This is revolutionary because the way we’ve been looking at this has all been, “I don’t know what’s wrong with these kids?” Throw some Ritalin and throw some Adderall and obviously, you know, there’s something broken. We’re now saying physiologically, the myelin isn’t there yet, the pipes haven’t been laid, they’re simply still developing this executive function and at that point then, what kind of strategies can we layer in to work with them and nuance our understanding of the fact that they’re just not quite there yet?
Right. First of all, I think that what’s seems to have been very appealing about this book that I wrote which is all facts. What I’m doing is translating facts from science into a way that … But keeping it valid, keeping it accurate. A way that people can kind of use that knowledge. I always say knowledge is power and this is knowledge you can use. As a parent or counselor or teacher working with teenagers, I think it’s really important to know about these basic strengths and weaknesses that they have because first of all it makes you more patient. You don’t look at them and … If you really understand that it’s biology playing itself out, that the fact that they’re racing off to do something completely irrational, while it angers you, you can at least recognize that a piece of it is actually biology.
One important thing that really frustrates people about the teenager is their … You perceive them as being very irrational and very headstrong with making poor decisions often. The other part is we get very irritated as adults and very frustrated by the influence of peers. The peer pressure effect and the extraordinarily emotional outbursts that adolescents can have. Science can explain that too. Remember I said that the brain connects from the back to the front? Well, your emotional areas are right about in here, in the limbic system which is sort of right behind sort of inside where your ears are, in the middle of your brain. Actually, those areas, because they’re behind the frontal lobe connect up first and they are pretty well connected for very on the spot access when you’re in your mid-teens. Imagine this, you’re dealing with a person that is under a huge amount of emotional pressure- Your limbic system, its sexual desire, reward, novelty seeking, risk-taking, all in there. Also, begin very much emotionally connected to wanting to be you know liked, and so that’s the peer pressure effect, all of that is very hooked up, yet you don’t have your frontal lobe saying, “You know, jumping off that cliff into the quarry, even though all my friends are doing it and it’s going to make me the hero of the day, might not be s smart thing.” You don’t have that frontal lobe being able to say that to you.
I think for parents and teachers to understand that, makes you step back and count to ten. My whole big message to parents is, don’t alienate your kids. You can turn, by knowing more about the science will make you a little bit less of an angry, frustrated human being so that you won’t alienate. You won’t shout at your children and create a rift because actually they need you now as much as they needed you when they were a toddler. In fact, I say, you have the frontal lobes as a parent, so you can give you kid a frontal lobe assist, form time to time. That means you can help them reason through things. You can help them with figuring out what homework to do every evening, because they don’t have those organizational skills. Everybody’s different. You’ll have people that are very advance who are in their teenage years and then people in their twenties are acting like 15 -year olds because it’s all relative. Everybody is going to mature but everybody’s slightly on their own little path and their own rate.
You can gauge with your child, you’ll see the ability to make these decisions and use organization and rationality for decision making is something they will gradually get. Now, the important thing about your teenager though is that they’re very, very, very good learners. They’re leaning machines and that’s because their synapses, as I told you they have more of them, and they have more of the machinery to build them for a memory or for a skillset, which is how we build our brains. It’s like nature versus nurture. That’s the nurture part of it. The experience builds a better brain. It turns out that they’re int his window of a huge amount of opportunity here, it turns out you can marshal those forces to really work on your strengths and the things you know you’re already good at and then really try to correct your weaknesses and it’s kind of the last time in your life you can do that to the extent that you can as a teenager. In fact, recent data has shown that IQ can change in your teen years which is, to me, astonishing, because when I was being thought neurology and neuroscience, it was suggested that all is happening … It’s an innate capacity. Whatever your IQ is is kind of what you’re stuck with. You can try to be an over-achiever but you’ve only got what you’ve got. Well, it turns out that’s not true.
Actually, for schools, it’s really important because it means that, at least in our country we’re very lucky because at the age of 14 or so, many countries will call you a scholar or not a scholar based on a standardized test. Off you go to vocational school or off you go to the university track. If you think about what I just told you, that’s terribly sad because a lot of these people haven’t even gotten there yet to even perform on the test. They could change their IQ … A third of people’s IQ goes up during their teen years, a third stays the same and a third goes down. We want to understand what those things are you can do to make it go up and not go down.
Sure. How much of that do we understand? Is there … ?
We actually understand a fair amount. It turns out that environmental enrichment, just like it does in early life, you hear a lot about early childhood education and this whole thing of synaptic plasticity, this is a term plasticity and it’s used … Remember I said the synapses? Why we call it plasticity is that synapses can be molded to be bigger or smaller based on ow much action is going through them on a regular basis and that’s learning. With learning, since something is going through the same set of synapses like a relay race from neuron to neuron to neuron to neuron, those connection points get stronger and stronger and stronger with use and bigger, like a muscle almost. That’s what we know now, the science of learning and memory. Teenagers, number one, I would caution any adult to ever try to compete with their teenager in a memory game because you would so lose, so they absolutely have a strength.
They can also use that capacity to build their synapses for their weaknesses as well. It is know that environmental enrichment and reading for instance will increase your verbal IQ. Functional imaging studies can show beautiful maps of how brain areas are actually growing in response to this between the age of 13 and 20. It’s continued brain growth, obviously. Then unfortunately, we already know things that can make your brain shrink or not growth in that window and your IQ go down. One of those are substance abuses and one in particular where a lot has been written about now is cannabis. Daily cannabis use, chronic cannabis use actually is one of those things that has been very well documented now in humans, not just animals, to drop your IQ, if you chronic, daily pot smoke through your teen years into early 20s. It will be a permanent decrease in your IQ and it will not be reversible.
Wow. Yeah. That’s big news because all over the country right now there’s this obvious resurgence and legalization in all these different states and it’s kind of been a free-for-all but as a parent you have to be incredibly meticulous about what’s happening with your kid. There’s a direction you can take and these teenage years are so fragile. What else? Whole body exercise? Math, Sudoku? Is it just challenging and stimulating brain cells for synaptic development and neuro-plasticity? Are there certain things beyond that? For me, you put those teenagers in the temple and everyone does their Kung-fu and works all the time and works on themselves. Now, you kind of feel like you’ve lost your kids and they’re out there and society’s going to have its way with them if you’re not careful.
How Much Do We Know About the Developing Teenage Brain?
Yeah. I think you’ve raised a really good point and I think it’s a discussion that … Nobody really knows how to address this properly. We’ve never known as much about the teenage brain as we do now and there’s more to learn. Like all of neuro-science, it’s just exploding in terms of knowledge. This is the first generation of which we’ve really known as much about their brains. When I give talks to teenagers and I do hope there are teenagers that have actually tuned into this program because it’s really good to have a user’s manual of your brain and we now know a lot more in this window and the capacity that they have . It’s a time of extraordinary privilege. Aware they can … They’re myelinated enough. They’ve got enough of that myelin of that insulation to be very independent and very resourceful but not quite got it all with the frontal lobe, but they have a n incredible capacity to direct themselves to great learning experiences , that will begin … This is like the last time you can really scaffold your brain.
One of the issues that I think is happening is the teenage brain is naturally because their reward systems are on fire compared to our as adults, they’re out there novelty seeking. That’s natural tendency, that’s what you want. Nature made the teenage brain and this is the casein every animal species also. There is a period like the teenage window, where they’ve got a lot of capacity, their motor control is really good, they’re now almost adults. Their limbic system is making them want to novelty seek because that’s the point. They’re trying to acquire experience, experience, experience. The brain is trying to teach itself and map onto different environments that the body can put the brain into, right?
That’s a good thing but what I would say right now, that I think that there’s never been a generation of teenagers that has had this … It’s unprecedented the amount of stimulation that teenagers are getting and that is probably through social networking and the ability to sort of connect and information, potential information overload. We know that there are permanent effects of stress in adolescence that can bring on depression in adulthood, so it’s also a window of vulnerability just as much as they’re very impressionable to good things, as I’ve just pointed out with pot, chronic pot smoking, they’re very impressionable to bad things. A lot of the drugs work on synapses. They have more synapses, so they’re going to have more stronger and longer lasting effects of drugs and also drugs will affect you long-term, they’re going to affect the way your brain develops.
I think that we have to think about this as a community around teenagers. How do we manage the stressors like watching an ISIS video or getting cyber bullied? School yard pranks … All teenagers have done stupid things and it might have involved taking a picture with a Polaroid camera and putting it up on a bulletin board and it’s a nasty thing to do, you know, impulsive, silly thing that teenagers do to each other. Now they’re posting those pictures on the internet or live streaming like with Tyler Clementi, a kid back in New York about three years ago who was … His college roommate, they were college freshmen because by the way your brain is not done when you start college and it is not done when you finish college. What this kid did was he placed the laptop facing the bed of this roommate. The roommate came back and actually hadn’t told anybody that he was gay and actually was there with a same sex partner and the whole thing video-streamed on-air.
Everywhere. The kid got so stressed out, Tyler, the boy, who was an incredible violinist, a really gifted child, 18-years old or so, and two days later he jumped off the George Washington Bridge and killed himself. If that had been a school yard prank, that Polaroid picture would have just been taken down. Ten people would have known about it and it would have been a really horrible week but he wouldn’t have had such a profound response. Right?
Social Media’s Effect On the Developing Brain
Now the entire world as we know it knows because nothing is a secret. Yeah. This is this era that we’re growing up in now with these kids is absolutely, fundamentally different than anything that we’ve ever known. Social media has created this really interesting world that’s wild, wild west and the stressors with that are new. How much of this time on Facebook … ? We had a guest a while back who had done some research and said that, ” Social media time actually in adults was decreasing cortisol levels because it was considered down-time.” Net net it was a positive thing and I thought that was kind of a head-scratcher for me. For kids, are we noticing anything neurologically with say like social media time versus reading and actual kind of … ?
It concerns me. It concerns me because I think they are having … There’s an element of social isolation that goes along with all of this social media. The fact that many kids will come home, race through the front door, run to the refrigerator, grab something, slam the door behind them and get back online and where’s the family connection? Where’s the like, “How are you doing?” Where’s the ability of a parent or a sibling to say, “You know Zack. He’s looking a little disheveled. Got dark rings under his eyes. Maybe he’s not well?” We are potentially missing opportunities to detect subtle changes in our kids because of the fact that everybody id just sort of isolated.
Of course, mental illness, another point to make and I make this in the book an important one to bring up here is that the time when most people acquire for the first time their first bought of a mental illness like depression or schizophrenia or bipolar, is coincidentally and it’s not coincidentally, in the teen years or early adulthood. That is the time when mental illness comes on. Actually, important neuro fact to know about this is that you need much of your frontal lobe to be connected in order to kind of do schizophrenia or depression or bipolar disease. You can’t do it on a child brain structure. It has to have more of a mature brain structure in order to be that disease. Many mental illnesses including anxiety, tend to come up in that teenage window and in early adulthood.
Again, this is the time when we should be screening people like we screen 50-year olds for colonoscopy, for colon cancer, we should be screening people because it’s so frequent. One in four people have mental illness of some kind and yet this is a window where they are isolating themselves and we don’t know what kind of stressors, because the environment can cause you to be stressed. What’s happening online, it’s an important conversation to have. I think that it’s not going away, You can’t tell them to not be online, this is a skillset they’re going to need to survive as they move into their adult lives. Clearly, they’re incredible multitaskers and can adeptly use the internet, but I think we have to begin to think about how do you gait yourself? Without a frontal lobe fully functioning, how do you say to yourself, “I’m not going to press that button and look at that ISIS video? I’m not going to do this.”
They are good learners and I said this earlier so you can begin to sort of teach them and that’s where the adult needs to give them a frontal lobe assist. We need to actually help them think through this and how they need to protect themselves.
You’re the mother of two teenage sons and so you’ve got this very close to home, another young adults. What drove you to write this book and then … I’d love to hear a couple of examples of frontal lobe assist that one can use in some of this decision-making. Obviously, when we’re with them we can do it. I’d love to see how we can kind of keep our voice in their heads when we’re not with them.
The Teenage Brain: A Neuro-scientist’s Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults
Okay. Again, my book, I try very hard to not make it like a self-help book. This book is actually a book where I’m a credible source, I’m in the field myself, I do research on brain development and I wanted to bring this science to everybody because usually there’s like a decade between when science is done and when the public kind of hears about it or is using it. In this case, there’s so much coming out, that has so much practical application, it’s amazing. Why did I write this book?
I wrote this book because I myself, as a scientist, was a neuro-scientist working on brain development and looking actually at epilepsy was something I studied, which can come on at different stages of development. It matters what stage of development you’re in, whether you’re child, infant, adult or elderly, what kind of medicine or what the process is. How would you treat the patient. I’ve been working in this area anyway. Then I realized I had an experiment going on in my own home, which were my two sons. They were changing dramatically as they hit adolescence. I was a single parent and I was like, “I’m not going this. I’m not going to mess this up. I know that there’s biology behind this.” I turned what could have been frustration and anger into curiosity and in my own laboratory as well as literature and started to decipher all of the stuff that’s just been coming out. I’d find myself on sideline, with parents at a football game saying, “Hey, so. That’s why this happens.” And they’re like, “So, that’s why they do it. Oh, now I know. It’s not just me being a terrible parent.” No. It’s not them begin a terrible teenager either, it’s biology.
I would give these talks called teen brain 101 talks to high schools and one thing led to another. Then we were on NPR and then I got a publisher saying, “You should write this book up.” I’m like,” No, no, no, no. I don’t need to write a book up.” And they’re like, “You could.” I did. I’m glad I did because I took a lot of the elements that I would naturally just say in a talk or when I’m counselling people, I put it into the book. It’s facts that you can use and hopefully you’ll use them in the right way. It’s pretty obviously what the right way to use them is, but it’s not … I’m a credible scientist so everything I wrote in that book is accurate. It’s not massaged or made into or exaggerated in any way. There’s nothing that I wrote in the book and the book’s been out for a year and a half, that’s had to be retracted. It’s scientifically, 100% valid and accurate. It’s put in the context of news stories of personal experiences and so for me, I made …
What I try to do is tell my kids sometimes when I could see something had happened to them, unfortunately, like any parent that’s listening to this now or any teenager that might be listening to this, the average person’s, sadly, when they’re going through high school, will have one to two people commit suicide. AT least one or two people have a DUI or some other accident that involves substance abuse and someone else will have like a psychotic break. These are big events and they’re going to happen in everybody’s environment. The point is, how do you take those stories for your teenager, when one of those things happens and say, “There’s a reason why this happened.” For instance, I pointed out when … I put a couple of these examples in the book but … I think it’s important that when you tell your child something, they’re so not going to listen to you if they think you’re boring. First of all, you can’t say it with anger and the second is, you have to make it catch their attention. Recently when I’ve been giving public talks on this, I’m saying if you want to get something across to your teenager, because they’re so information savvy and they’re data minors, you need to make it like a TED talk. You have to actually illicit enough interest from them and make it a TED talk if you want them to learn something. You have to capture their attention.
A friend of a friend of a friend in the same community had a … These were teenagers, they were out late at night, going swimming, they’d all drunk too much, they went swimming, they climbed over a fence into a community pool, they all swam and then they stagger back home very drunk and they look around the room and go, “Where’s Dan?” They’re like, “Whoa. He … Where is he?” They go back to the pool. There he is dead, under the water, having been swimming drunk, which if you lose your oxygen when you’re drunk, your body doesn’t say, “Wake up. Wake up. Get me up to the top of the pool.” You just fall asleep under the pool and you’re dead. I said that same thing to my kids. I think I got through to them.
You need to remind them that they’re going to do really risky things and that they should really think twice. Giving them a lot of examples, graphic examples of things that didn’t go right and did go right. There’s also the flip side, very positive things you can tell them about. About a kid that practices something and went from a C student to an A student. There’s a lot of things like that. You have to make it a little bit concrete for them as you’re giving them examples, it’s very important. I would use these unfortunately frequent things in your environment or on the news, that come up all the time, as teaching points for your kid.
Addiction, of course, substance abuse is huge in this window. It’s very easy for them to assess drugs because of social media and guess what? Addiction, they learn faster, their synapses grow faster. Well, addiction is a form of synaptic plasticity and learning unfortunately in your addiction circuits. A teenage brain uses the same … Every brain uses the same molecular processes to become addicted as it does to learn a vocabulary or times table, except that it’s in a different part of your brain, so it’s repeated exposure, not to a fact, but to a drug and you can build an addiction circuit.
Addiction is a disease, it can happen to everyone of us and just like teenagers are better learners, they’re, unfortunately, better addicters. They can get addicted harder, longer, stronger, faster, just like they can learn harder, longer, stronger, faster. I would tell them that and we would talk about people that started to smoke when they were teenagers, for instance, got addicted to nicotine, had a really hard time backing off as adults. Whereas if you acquire an addiction in adulthood, it’s easier to undo it. There’s a lot of things like that to tell them. They want knowledge. They love novelty. They’re trying to figure out who they are. They’re at a painful point in their lives where they want to know why they did that stupid thing the night before and did not own it. What a relief to them to know that that dumb thing they did, at that party last Saturday night, doesn’t need to define them, it was simply their frontal lobe not on.
Yeah. It’s very empowering because it’s easy for us to criminalize them. It’s easy for us to infantalize their behavior. They’re just still growing, they’re still our babies. This is great. I think that any parent listening to this who has a teenager, needs to read the book and just kind of get into understanding the science behind this because we need to have a fighting chance. There’s so many things working against us in our community that the more we know, the better off we are and the more we know how to help our kids, well obviously, you know. This is a very important time.
Again give us the name of the book and where people can find it.
It’s The teenage Brain- A Neuro-scientist’s Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults and it’s Harper-Collins and you can get it on Amazon or any bookstore. It’s in hardcover and paperback recently and it was a New York Times’ bestseller.
Great. Great. Well thanks for doing the work that you do. I think that this is really important stuff and that we’re all trying to figure this out and I’m glad you, I don’t want to say broke ranks, but jumped out ahead and shared some of this data sooner, because it does take a long time for some of this information to come down from the ivory towers and people are suffering everyday. If you have a teenager right now, by the time this stuff would come out, they’re already outside of that strike-zone so we won’t have the opportunity. Yeah.
Right. Here’s a copy of the book. That’s what it looks like for those of you that are interested.
Great, great. Excellent. Dr. Frances Jensen. Thank you so much for your time. Good luck with everything. Good luck with those kids and keep up the good work.
All right. Thank you.