The Adolescent Brain: Do We Really Know As Much as We Think We Do?
Also...Michael answers a question from a mom about her son's college application process--or lack thereof.
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Brain imaging is really sexy. But do we really know as much as we think we do as a result?


The Media & Myths About the Adolescent Brain


Michael Y. Simon, LMFT

Do you have a few minutes? Take a short quiz about some of the most commonly disseminated information on teens and brain development. 

1. The amazing thing about neural plasticity in adolescent brain development means that everything in the brain can change, based upon experiences. An example of this is the discovery that even something thought to be as stable as IQ, has been shown to be significantly raised (by 20 points or more) by experience-dependent factors.

True  or  False

2. Teens all pretty much develop in the same way and go through the same stages of adolescence, which includes a period of rebelliousness and oppositionality.

True  or  False

3. Adolescents have higher rates of morbidity and mortality than other age groups because they consider themselves invincible, impervious to the real negative risks associated with their choices.

True  or  False

4. Teens take risks and make bad decisions because most are not fully able to appreciate the consequences of their actions—an executive functioning skill that develops last in the adolescent brain.

True  or  False

5. Functional MRIs and brain imaging technology has finally enabled us to understand what individual neurons in the human brain do, so we can understand much more about particular neuronal groups in the brain—and whether certain areas in the teen brain are working or working well.

True  or  False


The Dominance of Brain Science
It's getting harder not to receive a wealth of information about adolescents and their brains. Psychotherapists, doctors, social workers and just about every online parenting blog and website is filled with information about how neuroimaging is "revealing the secrets of the adolescent brain," purportedly helping us all better understand the way our teens function. Much of the information sounds intriguing and somehow intuitively correct, even if we don't know much about brain anatomy, neuroimaging or cognitive science. And we need the help. If you think about the time period that describes adolescence (from the onset of puberty until the more or less complete maturation of the brain), we're looking at a time period from about 9 ½ or so to 28! And mortality rates for adolescents rise significantly as they progress into the adolescent period. Early adolescence, especially, represents the time period during which the most vulnerable periods occur for the development of later substance, conduct and mood disorders. So it seems more important than ever to get all the accurate information we can about how adolescents develop.

You Might Not Know What You Think You Know
So did you take the quiz? If you answered "True" to any of the questions, you've got some studying to do. The answer to all the questions is "False!"

But you're not alone in thinking the answer was "True" to all or most of those questions. This "wisdom" was culled from the headlines of major news magazines like Time, National Geographic and Newsweek, as well as from major online parenting blogs and major media outlet's news feeds.  Why is there is so much misinformation, incomplete information and just plain wrong information on the teenage brain, and why/how has it reached the clinician's office?

In order to answer that question, we have to understand the meeting of two phenomena: the paradox of adolescence and the explosion of neuroimaging studies of the brain. The paradox of adolescence is simply that while adolescence is the developmental period during which almost everything you can measure about teens gets better--speed, strength, reaction time, immune function, resilience to heat and cold, susceptibility to hunger and dehydration--,morbidity and mortality increase 200-300 percent. And most of these deaths and injuries are all related to the difficulty with management of emotions. Adolescence is also the time during which many health problems that may show up later in life are grounded.

In order to respond to this "paradox" of adolescence, researchers are working feverishly to understand the adolescent brain. For example, developmental neuroscience is an explosive area of research covering cognitive, affective and social neuroscience; 30,000 to 40,000 investigators at working at the edge of new knowledge and even people working within the same subspecialties cannot keep up with the results in their own field!

The current focus in neuroscience is towards understanding--primarily through the use of neuroimaging technologies like fMRI or DTI--the role of individual experiences in sculpting the processes of development. Many neuroscientists are trying to understand the processes of individual sculpting by looking at two major characteristics/theories of brain development that have been brought to light in the last 20 years: neural plasticity and connectivity.

Research on neural plasticity and connectivity within the brain have exploded in the last 15 years. Plasticity is a concept used to explain both how quickly and significantly the brain can be changed in both structure and function, particularly during adolescence. And the concept of intensive connectivity between neurons and neuronal groups is often used to explain why and how adolescents learn and change so quickly in their cognitive capacities and become more balanced in their thinking and feeling lives. But the results of thousands of studies on these concepts are often based on animal models or interpolated from neuroimaging studies.  And researchers are sometimes concerned to get the results out into the public, quickly, in order to effect public policy and funding priorities.

In the last few years, the general call has been for earlier intervention related to puberty-specific (versus age-related) changes. Funding dollars are being shifted up from early childhood and down from early adulthood into puberty because that's the time neuroscientists are saying is most critical, representing a kind of "tipping point" for development, according to Ron Dahl, Ph.D., at the University of California, Berkeley.  Tipping points are windows of development (or inflection points) that create vulnerabilities and opportunities for early intervention and prevention. Dahl would like clinicians and parents alike to be aware of these inflection points and direct our attention towards providing support for teens and pre-teens during these critical periods.

Brain researcher Valerie Reyna, Ph.D., wrote only a few years ago about the importance of getting new research out into the public sphere:

"Ordinary there is a lag time of approximately 20 to 30 years between discovery...and implementation in the real world. We aim to accelerate this that findings can inform both public policy regarding investments in future research and educational practice regarding training the innovators and problem-solvers of the future."

But, Speed Kills
It's obviously important to disseminate results quickly. But the problem is that in the rush to fill the 24-hour news cycle, we're bringing complicated, nuanced scientific results more quickly into public discussion, and significant errors are being made in translation from the "lab" to the therapist's office or the online blog. Brain imaging studies are providing the “raw data" for understanding the teenage brain, but in order to make complicated material palatable for a lay public,  it is being subjected to what I call “mediation” processes. These processes of "mediation" can create problems for teens and families.

As the media disseminates information, it becomes subject to error and distortion. The speed of dissemination also creates disequilibrium in the general population regarding just what to make of the results (good/bad, accurate/inaccurate), and creates a long list of other unintended consequences as it becomes harder to make a judgment about the truth and accuracy of the information. 

Neuroimaging is sexy: it sells. Since the logic of the digital media is to generate clicks and purchases, that logic can work against the slow, nuanced critical reading of complicated scientific results. If you see a huge screaming headline that reads, "TEENS ARE HIGH RISK-TAKERS BECAUSE OF THEIR IMMATURE BRAINS!," well, you'd probably want to read this. It purports to help explain often inexplicable adolescent risk-taking behavior. The problem is that any good neuroscientist will tell you that they simply do not know enough about the brain to make a statement like this.  We're just barely beginning to understand some of the anatomical functioning of specific brain regions. It's far too early to say that one area or structure of the brain causes a particular kind of behavior. But that's exactly the kind of article/headline you and I are apt to read these days. The limits of functional neuroimaging techniques are very significant, but those limitations do not often get discussed in the popular press. And many blog articles that discuss why teens do what they do (with reference to their brain development) often omit or do not fully understand that the studies were done using non-human animals and the applicability of the results is very limited. 

So, What Should We Do?
As a psychotherapist and educator, I can say that the breakthroughs in adolescent brain neuroimaging are beginning to give us a more systematic way of conceptualizing what good mental health is for adolescents--one that takes into account a more comprehensive, bio-psycho-social understanding of development. The explosion of neuroimaging research is arguably a good thing. But as parents and educators we have to be very, very careful about applying the very tentative results of a field in its infancy to immediate application in the classroom or the therapist's office. 

It's important for parents to try to begin to go the primary sources for information on adolescent brain development, and not to take for granted that what shows up on Slate or the Huffington Post is accurate.  Parents have to take with a grain of salt broad pronouncements about how "right brainers" are going to rule the world (a la Daniel Pink) or how the COMT gene can determine whether your child is a "warrior or worrier" when it comes to handling stress (a la Po Bronson). Over a decade ago, scientists began to throw away notions of a "left versus right brain" model, as strict lateralization in brain functioning is no longer considered an accurate way of understanding how the brain works. Books written by authors like those above are very entertaining and well written, but they often contain broad stretches of imagination from research that quickly turns out to be inaccurate or shown to be poorly understood.

Parents would also do well to question their child's mental health professional and doctor about their own knowledge of brain development. The best clinicians will speak much more about the preliminary nature of brain research results than they will about "how low serotonin levels absolutely cause depression." Neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine appear to be crucial in the regulation of mood in the human being. But there is no proven one-to-one correspondence. Everything we know about the human adolescent, for example, cannot be reduced to or explained by serotonin levels or "immaturity" in the "emotional center" of the adolescent brain. Concepts involving the "emotional center" or neurotransmitter functioning are theoretical at this point, not proven. Or as a neuroscientist friend recently said, "Proofs are for mathematicians, not neuroscientists." 


Michael Y. Simon, Practical Help for Parents.

Ask Michael....

I concerned about my son, who is about to turn 18. It's summer already and he hasn't really done much about college. He says he wants to go to college, but he wonders if all the effort really makes that much of a difference, based on what he says his friends went through this year. I have to push him to do everything, including signing up for the A.C.T. or S.A.T. and suggesting we visit some schools.  He says he can handle it on his own and with his school counselor, but I just don't see it happening. What am I supposed to do? My husband says I should back off and not do anything for him--that if he can't get himself to do things related to college then he isn't ready to go. But I feel like he's letting opportunities and time slip away.

As with many things, the right answer might be in a combination of approaches between the two of you.

The process of applying for college is a daunting one for young adults and it is changing as we speak. Some very fine schools (like Hampshire College, for example) are beginning to do away with consideration of ACT or even SAT scores as primary points for admission. And in the last admissions season, with changes related to the Common Application, many more students were able to apply to schools that they wouldn't have in the past. This meant record-numbers of rejections and much lower admission rates for many of the country's top schools. Ask your son: I'm sure he'll tell you that kids who had 3.9 GPAs and excellent SAT scores, who thought they would have their pick of top schools, didn't get in to many (or any) of their preferred choices.  This can create a lot of anxiety and some withdrawal on behalf of some students who are already worried about the process of applying for and being admitted to a meaningful college choice. 

All other things being equal--meaning that your son doesn't have AD/HD or a learning disability or depression/anxiety disorder--and that he's got a GPA above 3.2 and SAT scores 1900 or above, he's got what he needs to get into a good college, as long as he applies on time to a good range of schools. I don't mean to imply in any way that kids with AD/HD, LD or mood disorder issues won't get into college. I just mean that those things can complicate the picture, as procrastination, worry or fear can undermine the application process without a fair degree of help and support. In that case, you might need to do some behind-the-scenes involvement like checking in more frequently with his college counselor or looking into getting him a support person to help through the college application process. Sometimes having an outside person doing the "checking in" is much easier for a senior than having a parent in that role.

I believe that seniors need to "own" their own college application process and take charge of it. But during senior year, young adults often act like they've "got it covered" in order not to experience their intense anxiety about finishing high school and potentially leaving home for the first time to go to college. Your son might think he knows what he wants, but it's a bit like having a child. You don't really know what it's like until you live it. Many students change majors and a huge proportion of students either transfer (and graduate from a different college than their first choice) or don't finish college in four years. So he might have some idea of where he wants to go, but not really. It's just that he's not likely to share his trepidation and worry with you, because he knows full well that you'll jump in. If you jump in too soon he'll feel like a little kid, which undermines the confidence and courage he needs to actually jump into the process.

On the other hand, if you followed your husband's method and don't jump in at all, he might come to feel that you don't care whether he goes to college or not or wonder whether you resent giving him some help. It's a tricky business. It's a good idea, I think, to ask whether and in what ways he'd like your help. You can tell him something like, "You know I'm anxious about the college thing, but I really believe this is your baby. If you want my help, I'm here for you." Then tell him what you'd be willing to do, e.g., take him to visit some schools, given the expense and time OR sit and talk with him about organizing his college application process. He may say, "Yeah, okay, fine," but then never ask for help. You can ask him if he'd mind if you check in every couple of weeks and just ask if he'd like you to do something. He might be okay with that, but less okay with you asking randomly, throughout the week. You can tell him, "Okay, I'll ask you on Sunday afternoons...that way you'll know it's coming and be able to think about it for a few minutes before I ask you. That way you don't have to feel as much like I'm bugging you. This really is your thing. I just want to support you in it." 

It's hard for parents. You want the best for your son. You might have seen him procrastinate in getting things done. On the other hand, if you've seen him take care of his business, and you know that he's meeting with his school college counselor, you might want to really back off and tell him you believe in him. No matter what his challenges around jumping in to the college application process, that sentiment is one he wants to feel from you.  College admission may not be a certainty. But your son feeling that you believe in him, well, that's something he needs: guaranteed.

The Approximate Parent

Some "Wisdom" About Teen Brain Development

Each of the headlines below was culled from major media sources or clinician presentations, and is inaccurate or flat-out wrong. It would take too long to explain why these tidbits are inaccurate, but if you're interested you can consult one of two excellent volumes: The Behavioral Neuroscience of Adolescence (Linda Spear) and The Adolescent Brain (Valerie Reyna et al) for better information. I'd also recommend Chapter 2 of my own work, The Approximate Parent: Discovering the Strategies That Work with Your Teenager, for what I hope is a more thoughtful, balanced view of the insights from neuroimaging. You don't have to be a neuroscientist to raise your teen. But it helps to be critical about the kinds of headlines you read, below.
  • Did you know that the brain, not hormones, is to blame for the inexplicable behavior of teens? (False dichotomy)

  • Short-term memory increases by about thirty percent during adolescence? (Ridiculous, no basis in fact)

  • The activities teens invest their time and energy in determine what activities they'll invest in as adults. (Not necessarily)

  • Teens are ruled far more by their emotions than logic. (False dichotomy, not even true in many cases; this is a very individual-case thing)

  • Teens can't act like adults because they don't think like adults. (Wrong)

  • Teen brains are growing and changing by adding gray matter and pruning synapses. (Generalization, vague)

  • Choices teens make during adolescence potentially affect their brains for the rest of their lives. (Generalization, vague)

  • MRI Scans revealed that “rather than leaving childhood with a brain ready to take on the responsibilities of young adulthood, teens have to contend with a brain that is destroying old neural connections and building new ones.” (Ridiculous, vague)

  • Every time a teen has a new experience or gains a bit of information another (neural) connection is made. (Vague generalization; not useful)

  • The neural connections a teen makes endure a lifetime and unused connections are lost forever. If they aren't reading, doing science or solving problems, the synapses for those activities will be pruned. (Wrong)

  • The temporal lobes are even further behind in pruning. They do not finish growing or pruning until the age of 16. (Wrong; varies widely individual to individual)

  • Teens are poor decision-makers. (Wrong, vague, generalization)

  • Consequences are key: As teens get older, teens get bolder and take more risks! (It's more likely the opposite)

About Practical Help for Parents...and our Newsletter

Founded in 1998 by adolescent specialist Michael Y. Simon, MFT, Practical Help for Parents was developed to support the people who work daily with teens. PHFP provides: informative, entertaining, research-based workshops & presentations to high school & middle school parents, faculty, staff and administrators; parent consultation and support groups; program development and consultation to mental health professionals, policymakers, and schools/school districts and; access to online resources like the PHFP Newsletter, Practical Help Tip Sheets, PHFP Parenting Blog and other web-based resources all organized by 10 Key Parenting areas. You can find more information online at

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