Thursday 27 September 2018

Are teenagers - and their brains - different?

by Teri Terry

For a long time it was thought that most brain development takes place in the early years; that a teen essentially has an adult brain. 
But then why do they think and act so differently? 
For example, why do they - comparatively speaking - have poorer impulse control, take more risks in the presence of their peers, and generally find their parents excruciatingly embarrassing to be around? Why won't they just grow up?
Is it a societal thing - is it our fault - is it theirs?

Brainstorm is a play created by Islington Community Theatre (now called Company 3) and cognitive neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore:

You say to me...
Your brain is broken. It's like an adult's brain that doesn't work properly.

Whether you are a teen, write for teens, live with a few or work with them by the dozen, watch this excerpt: it is powerful.

Brainstorm from Mattia Pagura on Vimeo.

When I started writing for teens years ago, it wasn't long after the time that YA fiction was becoming a thing

Around the same time I remember coming across this argument, one I've heard many times since:
No matter what you call them - teenagers, young adults or adolescents - the whole youth culture is a recent creation of an affluent west. YA fiction grew out of this: it is a market artificially created by publishing companies to make money.

So, are they real or did we make them up? 
Whatever label you want to use, are teenagers distinctly different from children and adults, or are they actually a recent invention? 
And why does it seem so socially acceptable to mock teens and the ways they are different, their likes and dislikes? 

I'm all too familiar with how dismissive people often are of books written for teens and those who write them, and the view that readers should go from children's stories straight to adult classics with no stops between; that giving them access to teen fiction they enjoy allows them to be lazy and unchallenged.

I went to a talk by award-winning cognitive neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore at New Scientist Live last weekend: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain.

She knows what she's talking about. This is her bio, from the New Scientist Live website: 
Sarah-Jayne Blakemore is Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at University
College London, Deputy Director of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, Editor-in-Chief of the journal Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience and a member of the Royal Society Public Engagement Committee. She has won multiple major awards for her research, including the British Psychological Society Spearman Medal 2006, the Turin Young Mind & Brain Prize 2013, the Royal Society Rosalind Franklin Award 2013 and the Klaus J. Jacobs Research Prize 2015. She was one of only four scientists on the Sunday Times 100 Makers of the 21st Century in 2014.

I took LOADS of notes to do this blog, and then I found this: a TED talk! 
Well, Sarah-Jayne says it much better than I can, so here you go: 

So, there you have it. 

Teenagers ARE different; their brains are undergoing important work at making them who they are. This is the case across cultures; across centuries; even species. 

So, cut them some slack. 

And I'll keep writing, and know this: 
If I write a book that a teen connects with, one that makes them understand themselves or other people better, one that makes them feel that if a character their age can do something amazing, maybe they can, too - or even if it is just pure escapism from a difficult day - I know I've done something important.


  1. How timely! Inside Science was discussing that today -
    I've heard this before because Wilf (16) made a point of telling me.

  2. This is really interesting, and feels very relevant to my daily dealings with a 13yo and 15yo - not to mention secondary school teaching as well!


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