Championing moody adolescents
Meet the British neurologist who specialises in adolescent behaviour.
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.
A PERIOD OF NEUROLOGICAL 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.
A SENSE OF SELF
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.