Losing your head
And you thought the Tower of London was just a tourist attraction these days…
They’re a funny mix aren’t they, teenagers? On any one day, they are capable of impressive, robust and savvy reasoning and then, within moments, and to their own surprise, some jaw-dropping stupidity.
Turns out teenagers should think twice before they stick their necks out for the Tower of London.
Of course, teenagers thinking twice at all might be a good start.
Having been a teenager yourself, you’ll know that bodies don’t develop in nice smooth trajectories. Different bits grow at different rates, we go through awkward, gawky phases, look disproportionate and funny (have a look at my High School photos…) and, finally, settle into the constellation of features and bits that we have now.
Same goes for brains. While the sequence of brain development is consistent, it’s anything but a smooth and even process. Prior to birth the body generates brain cells, up to 250,000 a minute at times, so that, by birth, nearly all the brain cells you’ll ever need are there. From birth the brain engages in a rapid proliferation of connections between brain cells, called synapses – hundred of trillions of them. From 18 months old or so, the brain then prunes what it doesn’t think it needs.
But from late childhood through to late adolescence (say 10ish to 18ish) the brain has another go. The brain reaches full weight, and full proportion of adult body size (about 2%). There’s a bit of a surge in production before puberty, and it prunes again, getting rid of unnecessary connections.
Of particular interest to us is a small window of time in early adolescence, when there’s a bit of a burst in frontal lobe development. This is the brain part right behind your forehead, responsible for impulse control, planning and reasoning. It’s clever stuff. Really clever stuff.
Teenage heads in the Tower of London
But, says Dustin Albert and his co-researchers at Temple University, even though teenagers may have thinking skills, they might not bother using them before they act. (Really?)
Albert tested nearly 900 people aged between 10 and 30, on the planning task known as the Tower of London. It’s a standard neuropsychological test, closely related to the famous Tower of Hanoi test.
Here they had to rearrange stacks of coloured balls to match a goal picture, but doing so in as few moves as possible. To succeed at this, you need to be able to plan ahead and sequence your actions, to get from your current position to the goal position. Subjects were also tested on tasks relating to memory, reasoning and self-control.
Older subjects did better, demonstrating better ability to plan ahead as a component of problem solving. On the toughest of the problems, mature performance wasn’t clear until people reached about 22 years old. We know already that the harder the Tower of London problem, the more the drain on frontal lobe resources.
How to keep your head in the Tower of London
What was interesting was revelations in follow-up studies. How come some older adolescents and early adults did better than others? Were some teenagers just smarter than others? Did they cheat? It’s not a particularly difficult test, but you do need to think about it. And this is where the difference was. It looks like they had a fundamentally better grasp of a tenet every good builder knows.
Good builders say: measure twice, cut once. It’s a good proverb for life, right? Here, you could say, think twice, act once. The superior performers showed markedly better self-control, allowing them to plan more fully before they acted. It’s not a question of intelligence, but the ability to wait. Think twice, and act once.
Albert adds that programs to target this still-developing capacity to plan, control impulses and regulate emotion would significantly help teenagers make better decisions.
Teenage heads as an excuse
But Albert also claims implications for whether adolescents should be held to the same standards of criminal and other responsibility as adults.
Now while it’s true that the brain generally matures, at least for grey matter, from the back to the front, this is a little beyond the pale for my liking.
He goes on to say that research charting age differences in such capacities is increasingly being consulted for guidance on social and legal policies concerning adolescents.
And maybe it is.
But if we come from another angle, maybe there’s some good stuff here, like education to increase self-control from a young age, or that develop insight, or that teach better skills, or that remove temptations and opportunity (like alcohol and driving), or that create other alternatives like better parenting, but not using biology as an excuse for crime.
So here’s the take home bit
Adolescent brain development is an uneven, spasmodic process of proliferation, pruning, and plasticity.
Key to getting ahead is developing the brain’s capacity for self-control, which gives teenagers the critical ability to think twice and act once.
Being able to wait, even for just a few seconds, and think again, would significantly alter some decisions.
However, not being able to do that, may be a convenient excuse for alternate choices.
Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat
Tower of London, frontal lobe maturation, grey matter
What do you think?
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