Being a teen can be an amazing time of discovery, learning, and friendship but it is also a time of a rapid body change that results in emotional highs and lows when things can feel really tough. It is especially difficult to cope with the emotions if you are a student who found himself in a new and, therefore, stressful environment. So what’s going on in the brain and body that makes teenagers feel this way? Why being a teen is so challenging?
Peculiarities of a Teenage Brain
We were often told that the important years of brain development are between zero and five years old. However, recent research has found an adolescent development to be equally important. During the childhood, our brains continually grow generating grey matter until they reach their maximum size. For girls, it is around age 12 and boys around age 14. But even after this, the brain works to become more efficient by cutting away unused grey matter that isn’t exercised by experience and, at the same time, increasing the myelin, which is a lipid-rich substance that insulates brain pathways.
Puberty begins in the hypothalamus where a protein called kisspeptin is produced triggering a pituitary gland to unleash such hormones as testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone. These activate the ovaries and testis but also cause a young person to seek emotionally charged experiences, be it a movie that can make a teen sob or driving 180 miles per hour down the freeway. It causes a significant response to emotionally loaded images or sounds to be more intense.
The area of the brain responsible for planning ahead and assessing risk is still immature in teenagers so that is why teens are more likely to participate in a high-risk behavior like, for example, unprotected sex or drinking and driving.
Interestingly, in a simulated driving experience, adults and teens took the same amount of driving risk while being alone, however, when surrounded by a group of friends, teens take significantly more risks while adults were unaffected. What is the benefit of this behavior? The answer is a peer acceptance.
In a study where teens were asked to rank music clips with or without what their peers had picked, their choice has changed. Unlike small children and adults, feeling socially isolated as a teen can create an intense feeling of unworthiness. This, along with the biology, can contribute to teen’s prioritizing friends over even family. In fact, teenagers tend to have heightened social abilities like processing and evaluating facial expressions better than other age groups allowing teens to be extremely cognizant of friend’s joy, sadness or stress.
Neuroscience Research of Anna Tyborowska
Anna Tyborowska is a neuroscientist at Radboud University in Nijmegen, Netherlands. Together with her team, she conducted a brain study that investigated how teenagers control the emotional processing in their brain. The results of the study were published in the Journal of Neuroscience.
49 teens who agreed to be tested were 14 years old. It was important to have recruits of the same age since it could help the study identify different stages of puberty and the changes that occur. Barbara Braams, the neuroscientist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, shared her view of the study results and said, “I especially like that the authors show a shift and the regions which are activated during the task.”
The representatives of the group were both males and females and the emphasis was on how teenagers of both genders were able to control their emotions.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner (abbreviated fMRI) was used to measure blood flow in the brain of the teenagers. Depending on the task taken, blood flow varies in different areas of the brain. The scanner uses magnets to evaluate which part of the brain appears to be the most active while performing a particular task.
At the first stage, each person was required to lay inside the fMRI scanner without active movement and brain activity. During the next stage, teens were asked to complete a set of tasks in order to evaluate which parts of the brain are more active than others. Each teenager used a special joystick in order to perform tasks while staying in the scanner.
On a computer screen, teens were shown smiling and angry faces in turn. When seeing a happy face, the teen was supposed to pull joystick towards himself. If an angry face appeared on the computer screen, the person was asked to pull the joystick away from himself. This task was easy to perform since it is natural for the human being psyche when we get drawn to happy facial expressions and get put off by angry ones.
During the next task, teens were asked to do opposite actions compared to the previous task. Now they had to pull the joystick away from themselves if they saw the happy face and to pull it towards if an angry expression appears on the screen.
“Approaching something threatening is an unnatural response that requires self-control,” said Tyborowska meaning that the person needs to have an active control over the emotions in order to successfully complete the task.
It was evaluated how different parts of the brain reacted during the tests and the level of such hormone as testosterone was measured as well. This hormone is responsible for controlling how different structures of the brain are being formed and this is especially important during puberty when the teenage body develops.
Scientists found out that those teens who have less testosterone are more likely to rely on a limbic system, which is responsible for the emotion processing. Those teenagers whose testosterone level appeared to be quite high showed activity in their prefrontal cortex, which is the area that plays a role in making decisions.
In other words, relying on the limbic system can make a person too emotional while active prefrontal cortex is the part of a brain, which ensures that a person controls his actions wisely. The higher level of testosterone in the body is, the higher the possibility for a teen to make reasonable decisions and avoid the inadequate behavior.
Going through the puberty can be a stressful experience both for teenagers and their surroundings. If you are a student, the pressure doubles since you are away from home and there might be no one around who you can share your bustling emotions with. It might be tough to write college papers while battling with your sensitivity but remember that adolescence is still a time for fun and emotional control will definitely evolve as the brain matures into adulthood.
About the author: Jennifer Pauli graduated from Corvinus School of Management and finished the faculty of Journalism at Corvinus University of Budapest. Currently, He is an editor, business writer, and copywriter, working with enough well-known companies, blogs, and personalities. Follow her on Twitter, G+ and read the personal blog