Cham­pi­oning moody ado­les­cents

Meet the Bri­tish neu­rol­o­gist who spe­cialises in ado­les­cent be­hav­iour.

Vocable (All English) - - Édito | Sommaire - DECCA AITKENHEAD

Ex­treme, frag­ile, ego­tis­ti­cal... teenagers do not en­joy a great rep­u­ta­tion with most adults. How­ever, there seems to be a sci­en­tific ex­pla­na­tion for some of their be­hav­iour, to be found in the brain. Neu­rol­o­gist, Sarah-Jayne Blake­more, spe­cialises in ado­les­cent be­hav­iour, and can re­as­sure wor­ried par­ents, by chang­ing their per­cep­tions. She ex­plains the dif­fer­ences in how the teenage brain works.

An­nual me­dia cov­er­age of Au­gust’a*s exam re­sults has tra­di­tion­ally con­formed to an un­writ­ten rule that all pho­tos must show eu­phoric teenagers cel­e­brat­ing mul­ti­ple A*s. This year, the images [told] a dif­fer­ent story. Rad­i­cal re­forms to GCSEs [pro­duced] dis­ap­point­ment. 2. Sarah-Jayne Blake­more looks barely older than a teenager her­self. The award-win­ning pro­fes­sor of cog­ni­tive neu­ro­science at Univer­sity Col­lege London is, in fact, 44 and has made the study of the ado­les­cent brain her life’s work. She has been crit­i­cal of the very ex­is­tence of GCSEs, ar­gu­ing that they im­pose “enor­mous stress” on teenagers at a time when their brains are go­ing through huge change.


3. “Un­til about 15 or 20 years ago,” she says, “we just didn’t know that the brain de­vel­ops at all within the teenage years.” Un­til then, it was as­sumed that teenage be­hav­iour was al­most en­tirely down to hor­monal changes in puberty, and psy­cho­log­i­cal ex­per­i­ments have now found that ado­les­cence is a crit­i­cal pe­riod of neu­ro­log­i­cal change, much of which is re­spon­si­ble for the unique char­ac­ter­is­tics of ado­les­cent be­hav­iour. Far from be­ing a de­fec­tive or in­fe­rior ver­sion of an adult brain, the ado­les­cent mind is both unique and – to Blake­more – beau­ti­ful.


4. Blake­more likes to talk about her work by be­gin­ning with a quote from a teenager’s di­ary dated 20 July 1969: “I went to arts cen­tre (by my­self!) in yel­low cords and blouse. Ian there but didn’t speak to me. [...]” What may look to us like jaw-drop­ping self-ab­sorp­tion is, she ex­plains, in fact es­sen­tial neu­ro­log­i­cal de­vel­op­ment, be­cause the bi­o­log­i­cal func­tion of ado­les­cence is the cre­ation of a sense of self.

5. Teens achieve this through cre­at­ing new al­le­giances, in­de­pen­dent of their par­ents – which is why their friend­ships sud­denly be­come so vis­cer­ally im­por­tant. What is known on so­cial me­dia as Fomo – fear of miss­ing out – may look like an ir­ra­tional sense of pri­or­i­ties. But when noth­ing mat­ters more than the ap­proval of their peers, “That brings with it a hy­per­sen­si­tiv­ity to be­ing ex­cluded by friends”.

6. It is this hy­per­sen­si­tiv­ity to so­cial ex­clu­sion that chiefly, she says, ex­plains ado­les­cent risk-

tak­ing. Con­trary to pop­u­lar opin­ion, teenagers are nei­ther poor at as­sess­ing risk, nor prone to believ­ing them­selves in­vin­ci­ble. “They’re not. Stud­ies con­sis­tently show that they get it. But in the heat of the mo­ment, when they’re with their friends, and their friends are smok­ing or drink­ing or what­ever, it’s in­cred­i­bly hard for them to re­sist.”

7. She cites a video game de­vised by a psy­chol­o­gist, in which the player drives a car and must de­cide what risks to take at traf­fic lights. When watched by their friends, ado­les­cents took al­most three times as many risks as when alone. Teens’ sus­cep­ti­bil­ity to peer pres­sure is not, in other words, a char­ac­ter flaw, but a neu­ro­log­i­cal drive. 8. Like­wise, we should stop wor­ry­ing about teenagers want­ing to sleep in all morn­ing. Our cir­ca­dian rhythms are de­ter­mined by a part of the brain that reg­u­lates the syn­the­sis of mela­tonin, but, af­ter puberty, mela­tonin be­gins to be pro­duced later at night, which ex­plains why ado­les­cents feel wide awake un­til late in the evening and find it so hard to get up in the morn­ing. To re­gard them as lazy is as il­log­i­cal and un­fair as it would be to con­sider a two-year-old work­shy for need­ing a mid­day nap.


9. I am cu­ri­ous about the pub­lic pol­icy im­pli­ca­tions of Blake­more’s work. Were she in charge of the coun­try, what would she change? For a start, she says, we could har­ness the “pro-so­cial” po­ten­tial of ado­les­cent peer pres­sure. “There’s a lot of ev­i­dence that teenagers value other teenagers’ views more than adults’ views. There have been stud­ies on bul­ly­ing – and smok­ing – show­ing that if you get the young peo­ple them­selves to run cam­paigns, they have a much big­ger af­fect on at­ti­tudes than if the same cam­paigns are car­ried out by teach­ers.” What makes Blake­more’s af­fec­tion and ad­mi­ra­tion for teenagers so strik­ing, I re­alise, is its rar­ity.


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