Conference seeks to unravel the puzzle of the adolescent brain
WILLMAR -- Anyone who's spent time around adolescents is familiar with their behavior: the moodiness, the hostility, the defiance. It turns out that teenagers aren't just trying to yank the chains of the adults around them. They act that way beca...
WILLMAR -- Anyone who's spent time around adolescents is familiar with their behavior: the moodiness, the hostility, the defiance.
It turns out that teenagers aren't just trying to yank the chains of the adults around them. They act that way because, at this stage in life, that's how their brains function.
Research is revealing new knowledge about the adolescent brain, and it's changing the way we think about teens and their behavior.
"Adolescence is not a problem to be solved. It's a mystery to be lived," says teacher and psychologist Dr. David Walsh.
Walsh was the keynote speaker Tuesday at the annual community conference on the brain.
About 360 people, some from as far away as Marshall and the Twin Cities, attended the event, which was organized by the PACT 4 children's mental health collaborative to showcase the latest knowledge and insight in brain development among young people.
This year's event was the fourth time the conference has been held.
Participants had the chance to hear about research on brain imaging, adolescent mental illness and the neurobiology of antisocial behavior. Panel discussions were offered on teenage girls and body image and on young adults who've grown up in the mental health system.
Walsh, the keynote speaker, is known nationally for his expertise on adolescent thought and behavior. He is the president and founder of the National Institute on Media and the Family and has written three books.
Teenage behavior -- the focus of Tuesday's five-hour conference -- has been a puzzle and a challenge since the days of the ancient Greeks, Walsh said.
What's new is that researchers now realize the adolescent brain is still an unfinished product, he said.
"We now are not only learning more about how the brain works, we're learning we made mistakes, and one of our mistakes was in understanding the adolescent brain," he said. "It turns out to be a work in progress, a series of major construction zones."
Although the brain reaches adult size by the time a youngster is 11 or 12, many key areas inside the brain are still developing. One of the most important of these is the prefrontal cortex, the so-called "CEO of the brain" which helps govern functions such as planning, understanding consequences and managing impulses.
It explains why so many teens are prone to taking risks and being impulsive, Walsh said.
During adolescence, the brain also begins to be flooded with hormones -- testosterone in boys and estrogen and progesterone in girls.
Surges of testosterone act directly on the brain's anger center, the amygdala, causing teenage boys to often become hostile and aggressive. Among girls, the interplay of hormones sparks roller-coaster levels of serotonin and can produce extreme moodiness.
Without the moderating influence of a mature prefrontal cortex, teens can literally be at the mercy of what's happening in their brains, Walsh said. He likens it to a racing car: "It's as if the gas pedal was to the floor with the brakes on back order."
Some of the newest -- and most intriguing -- research also is finding that while adults use their prefrontal cortex to interpret nonverbal cues such as body language and tone of voice, adolescents use their amygdala, or anger center, to do so.
"It means that they are prone to making mistakes in interpreting nonverbal cues, but they are not random. Their mistakes are consistently in the direction of anger and aggression," Walsh said.
It helps explain why something simple, such as two adolescent boys bumping into each other in a school hallway, can escalate, "sometimes with tragic results," he said. "The implications of what we're talking about play out every day."
What can parents and other adults do to ease the passage of the adolescent years?
Walsh prescribes large amounts of three key ingredients: connection, guidance and love.
"What we adults need to remember is that loving a teenager can be a delayed gratification activity," he said. "The real payoff comes when our kids turn out to be the adults we hope they become."