The Adolescent Brain—or Harry, How Could You?!
In 2005, when he was barely 20 years old, Prince
Harry dressed as a Nazi in a German desert uniform and a swastika
armband to attend a friend's costume party—not a prudent choice for a
young man third in line to become king of England just months prior to
entering the prestigious military academy of his royal ancestors. Harry
made the international news, apologized for his offense, and left
people around the world to wonder, "What was he thinking?"
Lamentations about the idiosyncratic behavior of
adolescents are, of course, nothing new. Adults have always scratched
their heads and tried to understand why adolescents behave the way they
do. Fortunately, now we have the ability to look inside the living
adolescent brain and examine the processes that result in this erratic
behavior. Neuroscientists use MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), fMRI
(functional magnetic resonance imaging) and DTI (diffusion tensor
imaging) to examine the structure and function of brain areas and to
monitor the communication trail among different brain areas. These
noninvasive neuroimaging technologies have revealed startling
information about the brain that can help us understand adolescent
The Prefrontal Cortex
Giedd and associates (1999) discovered that
around the ages of 9 or 10, the prefrontal cortex (the area of the
brain immediately behind the forehead) experiences a huge growth
spurt—some new neurons (brain cells) and millions of potential
connections through which information is transmitted from neuron to
neuron. Metaphorically, the prefrontal cortex of the brain becomes
overgrown, filled with a proliferation of intertwined branches, few of
which are strong and functioning optimally.
The prefrontal cortex, the CEO of the brain and
its seat of wisdom, is responsible for executive functions such as
rational decision making, self-control, regulating and sustaining
motivation, goal orientation, attentiveness, and accurate emotional
interpretation—all behaviors associated with the mature adult. The
adolescent's brain, however, is not yet hardwired to perform these life
functions independently, accurately, and adequately, which may explain
some teens' erratic decision making and behavior.
The maturing of the prefrontal cortex that
controls those executive behaviors is called regression. For the
average person, regression begins in middle school and continues into
the mid-20s. Neural circuits that are used are retained and become
stronger; those used infrequently or not at all are pruned away.
The Limbic System
Casey, Jones, and Hare (2008) report that the
limbic system, the emotional seat of the brain, develops earlier than
the prefrontal cortex in the adolescent brain. The limbic system is the
area of the brain responsible for initiating impulsive and risky
behavior, anger, fear, and aggression. Thus, the teenager often has an
"appetite for adventure, a predilection for risks, and a desire for
novelty and thrills" (Dahl, 2003, p. 8), without the fully functioning
brakes of the prefrontal cortex.
This risky behavior is even more pronounced in
males. Adolescent boys have multiple surges of testosterone every day,
and the amygdala, a dominant part of the limbic system, has receptors
for testosterone. Consequently, male adolescents are more susceptible
than females to dangerous and outrageous behavior and do not have a
mature prefrontal cortex to trump the limbic system.
Coaching the Adolescent Brain
Robert Sylwester (2004), a specialist in
cognitive science research, said, "The only way we can learn to walk is
to practice walking, and the only way we can mature our frontal lobes
is to practice the reflective problem solving and advanced social
skills that our frontal lobes regulate—even though young people aren't
very successful with it initially" (p. 78).
So maybe the question about Prince Harry's
behavior should be not, "What was he thinking?" but "Who let Harry out
of the castle dressed as a Nazi?" Where was the adult coach of his
executive system who should have asked Harry to reflect on the
appropriateness of his attire?
If Sylwester's hypothesis is correct, then the
question for secondary curriculum developers and classroom teachers
should be, "How can we include content-related, authentic
decision-making and problem-solving activities so that we can coach
adolescents in the use of logical reasoning and reflective thought?"
Casey, B. J., Jones, R. M., & Hare, T. A. (2008). The adolescent brain. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1124, 111–126.
Dahl, R. (2003). Beyond raging hormones. Cerebrum, 5(3), 7–22.
Giedd, J. N., Blumenthal, J., Jeffries, N. O.,
Castellanos, F. X., Liu, H., Zijdenbos, A., Paus, T., Evans, A. C.,
& Rapoport, J. L. (1999). Brain development during childhood and
adolescence: A longitudinal MRI study. Nature Neuroscience, 2(10), 861–863.
Sylwester, R. (2004). How to explain a brain: An educator's handbook of brain terms and cognitive processes. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
is an education professor at Towson University in Towson, Md., and the
2007 International Reading Association Outstanding Teacher Educator in