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Youth Who Puzzle Us: Recent Work in Neuroscience Explains Why

Youth Who Puzzle Us: Recent Work in Neuroscience Explains Why

By Vignetta Charles, PhD | August 29, 2016
Chief Science Officer, ETR

Do you work with adolescents? Have you ever faced situations like these?


Sofia is an excellent student, popular on campus and a delightful member of your peer health educator program. She knows everything about birth control, STI prevention and making smart choices. She loves educating her peers. She and her boyfriend come to see you one afternoon and tell you they are pregnant.

* * *

Ethan’s parents are shocked and baffled when their 16-year-old son, along with several of his friends, is arrested for underage drinking. One of the kids, highly inebriated, was driving the group around in his dad’s car. “Ethan is such a quiet boy,” they tell the police. “He’s never gotten into any kind of trouble.”

* * *

Milo is engaging, thoughtful, self-observant and easy-going—as long as he’s in a one-on-one situation with an adult. But as soon as he’s with his peers, he can’t stop acting out. He makes jokes, creates disruptions and sometimes teases classmates rather cruelly.

We all know that teens sometimes behave in these ways. But why? New developments in neuroscience actually give us some answers on this—and suggest several promising remedies.

Webinar: Survive or Thrive? Re-Envisioning Adolescent Success

We recently collaborated with the California School Based Health Alliance on a webinar describing and applying the new insights in developmental neuroscience. Our goal is to re-think and re-envision how we educate, raise and care for young people on their path to lifelong health and wellbeing. You can find links to the webinar recording and slides ("Survive or Thrive? Using Neuroscience to Re-Envision Adolescent Success") and information about other upcoming CSBHA webinars here.

Three Big Principles

Every situation and every young person are unique and distinctive, but an understanding of neuroscience offers valuable clues about the behavior of all adolescents. Here are three major principles at work in virtually every young person.

  1. Plasticity shapes the brain. The physiologic structures of the brain shift and change in response to our experiences and environment. This is called plasticity. There is some element of plasticity at work throughout our lives, but the greatest amount of change occurs between birth and young adulthood—the mid-to-late 20s. We’re lucky. Without plasticity, we’d have the brains of lizards!
  2. Plasticity occurs through overproduction, pruning and myelination. In adolescence, the brain becomes very active. Throughout childhood, the synaptic connections in our brains—the structures that basically make thoughts, movements, reflexes and everything else happen—are growing massively. At puberty, a process called pruning takes place. Connections that aren’t being used are “pruned” away—they literally disappear. But the connections that are being used become more integrated and work more quickly. The brain is becoming more specialized, focusing on the tasks that have shown themselves to be useful to the individual.
  3. Different regions of the brain develop at different times. This is important for adolescents, because it turns out the reward center of the brain is developing very quickly, while the prefrontal cortex—the thinking, reasoning, understanding-consequences part—is developing more slowly.

Prizes! Rewards! They’re Fabulous!

You can see the potential for trouble here. Adolescent brains are wired to seek out rewards and pleasures. They are drawn to novelty and crave new experiences. The reward centers are sensitive to pleasures both chemical (read: alcohol, tobacco, other drugs) and social (read: new friends, peer pressure).

Of course, the prefrontal cortex is developing as well. It’s just slower. So those new abilities to think abstractly, imagine the future with greater complexity, engage in richer social relationships and understand risks and consequences—they’re really cool. But not quite as enticing as the things that excite the reward center.

It’s Hot! It’s Cold! It’s Cognition

Putting this all together gives us what’s called “hot” and “cold” cognition. In more controlled classroom settings, adolescents are actually quite good about reasoning through risky situations. They’re calm, they’re not emotional, and they demonstrate excellent rational decision-making skills. That’s cold cognition.

Hot cognition refers to more emotionally charged situations. That includes being around friends, peer pressure situations or new and challenging social situations (a crush, an argument, being bullied). Rational decision-making may be suppressed. Adolescents may be more likely to engage in risky or impulsive behaviors.

The Take-Home

Here are some of the essential take-homes of the latest research in neurodevelopment.

  1. Teens are shaped by their experiences. “Use it or lose it” is a true physiologic principle.
  2. Teens crave novelty and rewards, especially around peers.
  3. Teens take risks. This is a normal part of development.
  4. Fostering self-regulation—the ability to identify and respond rationally to impulses—is a promising strategy to address adolescent impulsivity and risk taking.

Now What?

There are new research-based strategies that are showing promise in reducing adolescent risks and boosting self-regulation. These include strategies to improve self-control and reduce the strength of impulses. Putting these to work, providers in youth service programs can re-think their interventions and re-envision youth success.

We’ll be addressing these strategies in more depth in our upcoming webinar on neurodevelopment. Participants will practice applying some of these key findings to their current work. We’ll also be looking at the impact of adverse childhood experiences, and doing more of a deep dive on the new developmental neuroscience.

I hope you’ll consider joining us. Find out more here.


Vignetta Charles, PhD, is Chief Science Officer at ETR. You can reach her at or find her on LinkedIn.

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