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I think, therefore I am (Cogito, ergo sum.) - Descartes


I have never let my schooling interfere with my education - Mark Twain

Before you become too entranced with gorgeous gadgets and mesmerizing video displays, let me remind you that information is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom, and wisdom is not foresight. Each grows out of the other, and we need them all. - Arthur C. Clarke


Creative thinking may mean simply the realization that there's no particular virtue in doing things the way they have always been done. - Rudolph Flesch






The Teenage Brain

What emotion do you see in this face?Look at the picture. What emotion do you see in this woman's face? Hold that thought and read on...

We used to think that teens respond differently to the world because of hormones, or attitude, or because they simply need independence. But when adolescents' brains are studied through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), we see that they actually work differently than adult brains.

At the McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., Deborah Yurgelun-Todd and a group of researchers have studied how adolescents perceive emotion as compared to adults. The scientists looked at the brains of 18 children between the ages of 10 and 18 and compared them to 16 adults using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Both groups were shown pictures of adult faces and asked to identify the emotion on the faces. Using fMRI, the researchers could trace what part of the brain responded as subjects were asked to identify the expression depicted in the picture.

From Zits.The results surprised the researchers. The adults correctly identified the expression as fear. Yet the teens answered "shocked, surprised, angry." And the teens and adults used different parts of their brains to process what they were feeling. The teens mostly used the amygdala, a small almond shaped region that guides instinctual or "gut" reactions, while the adults relied on the frontal cortex, which governs reason and planning.

As the teens got older, the center of activity shifted more toward the frontal cortex and away from the cruder response of the amygdala. Brains grow and mature.When something new, or exciting, or interesting holds our attention, our pre-frontal cortex

Researchers have found that in an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex (see picture at right,) the brain appeared to be growing again just before puberty. The prefrontal cortex sits just behind the forehead. It is particularly interesting to scientists because it acts as the CEO of the brain, controlling planning, working memory, organization, and modulating mood. As the prefrontal cortex matures, teenagers can reason better, develop more control over impulses and make judgments better. In fact, this part of the brain has been dubbed "the area of sober second thought."

Researchers are discovering surprising differences between the brains of adults and those of teenagers -- differences that have begun to explain at least some of the differences in the way these two groups think. It's not JUST a matter of a maturing brain that teens have to deal with. One aspect of the teenage way of life may affect the moods, actions, and potential of young people just as much if not more than brain anatomy: lack of sleep.

Many teenagers today juggle so many activities that there is just not enough time in the day to get everything done -- unless they give something up. Very often that "something" is sleep. With most high schools in the United States starting at around 7:20 a.m., and with many teens going to bed between 11 p.m. and midnight, sleep researchers worry that teenagers across the country are getting far too little sleep. This trend of sleep deprivation among young people, they say, is having a dramatic impact on many aspects of teenagers' lives, including their ability to learn.

You need more sleep!Studies conducted at Harvard Medical School and Trent University in Canada have found strong evidence to support the sleep/learning connection. In these experiments students were put through a battery of cognitive tests. Afterwards they were allowed to sleep various lengths of time, and then were re-tested on the same material to determine how sleep affected their ability to learn. The results showed that after the students went to sleep, their brains "practiced" what they had learned during the day. While parents always knew intuitively that sleep helped learning, few people recognized that learning actually continues to take place while a person is asleep. This means that sleep after a lesson is as important as getting a good night's rest immediately prior to a test or exam.

According to researchers, the brain practices what it has learned during two particular phases of sleep. During the first part of the night, the levels of several brain chemicals fall sharply. Facilitated by this chemical change, information flows out of the hippocampus and into the surrounding cerebral cortex. Then, according to one neuroscientist, during a phase of sleep called slow-wave sleep, the brain distributes this new information into the appropriate networks. Inside the brain, proteins strengthen the connections between the nerve cells responsible for transmitting the new information. Later, during a phase of sleep called REM (for Rapid Eye Movement), the brain replays the lessonsThis is the part of your brain that dictated the way you perceived the picture at the top of this page! from the previous day and solidifies the newly made connections.

Unfortunately, practicing good sleep habits is particularly difficult for teenagers. Not only do their own natural sleep rhythms fight against going to sleep early, but many teens have no control over what time they must wake up. Teens can do something to try to reset their internal body clocks, however. Sleep experts say dimming the lights at night and getting lots of daylight in the morning can help. Having a routine bedtime of no later than 10 p.m., sleeping in a cool environment, and turning off the stereo, TV, and computer when it is time for bed can also help teens reset their body clocks.

Discussion Questions
  • What emotion did you assign the woman in the picture? Why?
  • Teen behavior is often inconsistent. Does this brain research help explain why?
  • Now that you know you're supposed to get more sleep, what are you going to do?


    U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration. U.S. Teens in Our World Rockville, Maryland: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2003







    Students in the U.S. rank highest or among the top four countries in prevalence of stomachache, backache, headache, difficulty sleeping, feeling tired in the morning and feeling low at least once a week.

    More than 40 percent of U.S. females report backaches or stomachaches at least weekly; 57 percent report equally frequent headaches. Almost half of U.S. girls and one-third of boys report feeling low once a week or more. More than one-fourth of both girls and boys report having sleep difficulties at least once a week.

    Relatively high reporting of medication use by U.S. students for headache, stomachache, and difficulty sleeping support the reports of elevated U.S. levels of physical symptoms.

    Adolescence is generally considered a time of good health; levels of illness and chronic disease are generally low, and injuries present the greatest threat to adolescents' health.

    However, how students feel on a daily basis, both physically and psychologically, may directly affect the success of their transition through adolescence. Their perceptions of health, self-confidence and satisfaction with life reflect the level of biological and psychosocial stress and anxiety that they experience.

    --U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration. U.S. Teens in Our World Rockville, Maryland: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2003

    Teens and their brains. A wild exercise in survival.Hillary Tillotson, 19, and Tessa, 15, are sisters who have acted out as teens.CNN answers the question:
    Why are teens are wired for risk?

    (CNN) -- It was hot at 3 a.m. in a small town in North Carolina, and there wasn't a lot for a group of teenagers to do. So, Hillary Tillotson, her brother and three other guys sneaked under a fence to go swimming at a private pool down the street. Only Tillotson and her then-boyfriend kept their clothes on, she said.

    Two days later, a cop showed up at Tillotson's house. Some of the teens' accomplices had been bragging about their skinny-dipping adventure, and someone turned them in for trespassing. She and her brother had to go to court; their mother paid the fine.

    "Sometimes I wonder where their brains are at," Tillotson's mother, Lori Lee, said of her children. "They do such impulsive things, and sometimes I just don't think they're thinking."

    Neuroscientists confirm that teenagers do have brains, but they're wired differently from those of adults. Why many teenagers seek thrills, break rules and seem nonchalant about their own safety has been a question brain scientists have worked to answer in the last two decades. Top researchers use functional magnetic resonance imaging to see this brain activity.

    A new study in the journal Nature found that structural changes in adolescents' brains correspond to fluctuations in IQ over time, with some young people improving and some falling back on these tests.

    Teens improve at such tests at different rates, and it's difficult to know how someone will do a few years after the initial assessment, said study co-author Cathy Price at the Wellcome Trust Center for Neuroimaging. It's not yet clear whether fluctuations seen in this study are unique to this age group, or whether they would be similar across a lifespan.

    Scientists typically refer to "the teenage brain" in 13- to 17-year-olds, but that doesn't mean that college students are totally "adults" yet. In fact, research from the National Institutes of Health has shown, the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain associated with inhibition of risky behavior, doesn't get fully developed until age 25. The connections between the prefrontal cortex and other areas of the brain are also developing in teenagers. And a number of deep structures in the brain are influenced by changes in hormones, which may lead to heightened emotions.

    The way that brain regions talk to one another in teenagers may explain teens' sometimes confounding behavior, scientists say. Even in their mid-teens, adolescents can make quick, efficient, correct decisions; in the heat of the moment, though, the brain's deep emotional centers will win out over reason.

    "It's not like these brain parts aren't there. It's how they get wired and become fine-tuned with experiences," said BJ Casey, director of the Sackler Institute at Weill Medical College of Cornell University.

    They get what they want

    Teens are more sensitive than adults to rewards of situations or activities, and less sensitive to risks, brain imaging research shows.

    Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University and author of "You and Your Adolescent: The Essential Guide for Ages 10 to 25," has done research in this area. He found that when teenagers are in the presence of friends, the reward system gets aroused even more.

    "It's not that adolescents don't understand risk. They understand it perfectly well," says Beatriz Luna, a neuroscientist at the University of Pittsburgh. "It's just that they find it more rewarding to impress their peers, and things of that sort, than the risk that's involved to their actual survival; it's just what they value at that point."

    This would help explain why teens give in to peer pressure more easily than adults -- for instance, in breaking the law to jump into a pool in the middle of the night, as Tillotson did.

    "I'm not someone who makes big mistakes like that. I'm usually the goody-goody in my family," says Tillotson, 19, of rural North Carolina.

    Her 15-year-old sister, Tessa, is the family's rebel, their mother says. It's not unusual for Tessa to sneak out behind her mother's back and go to the park. "I don't like my mom to say no," Tessa says.

    There's an evolutionary explanation for this kind of behavior: In most mammals, adolescence is the time when individuals leave the family environment, Steinberg said. Sensation-seeking leads pubescent creatures to go find sexual partners and a social structure outside the home. They need to become independent of their parents and adapt to new surroundings.

    Venturing out into the wild and leaving the security of parents is a risky thing to do, so there must be some built-in biological mechanism to ignore the potential dangers of the wild, scientists reason.

    "If it didn't happen, we wouldn't leave home and reproduce," Steinberg explains.

    And what they want can be dangerous

    The reward-seeking brains of teens may lead them to experiment with pleasure-inducing substances like drugs and alcohol, which are especially dangerous for this age group, scientists say.

    Since vital structures in the teen brain are still developing, adolescents are more prone to brain damage from drugs and alcohol. Research has shown that teenagers who binge drink will have greater brain damage than adults. And teens are more vulnerable to stress, which may lead to an increased risk of depression later in life.

    Marijuana can stay in a teenager's system for days, impacting the building blocks of learning and memory. That's because the teen brain probably has more receptors for drugs to bind to -- the same is true for alcohol. And in teens who regularly use pot, IQ can permanently decrease, research has shown.

    On the plus side, teens are rapid learners, since their brains are still developing.

    But that also means they can get "addicted faster, longer and stronger," Dr. Frances Jensen said at TEDMED in 2010. That's because addiction is related to learning and memory; teens may be able to pick up a language faster than an adult, but they can also develop dangerous habits more easily, too.

    Parenting a teenage brain

    So what's a parent to do? Steinberg says it's a lot harder to change the reward-seeking predilections of teenagers than to restructure the environment in a safer way.

    Parents can make sure kids don't spend a lot of time unsupervised. For instance, they can enroll teens in healthy after-school programs where adults are present.

    On a societal level, raising the price of substances such as alcohol and cigarettes would curb teens' use of them. This would produce a greater change in behavior among young people than education programs, research has shown.

    That's not to say that kids can't learn from their mistakes. There's a broad spectrum of sensation-seeking and tolerance for risk among this age group, so some teens won't get into as much trouble as others. And even though they may be saying "Get out of my face" when you offer advice, they may be listening and need your support, says Luna, the University of Pittsburgh neuroscientist.

    And behavior isn't entirely determined by biology, either.

    Parents can also help by rewarding good behavior instead of emphasizing punishment of negative behavior, Steinberg said. Find an incentive that gets your child motivated -- for example, give a bonus in allowance when he or she does something good rather than taking away money as a penalty.

    As for Tillotson, after the pool incident, she had to do 40 hours of community service for the chief of police, and she was on probation for six months. Her mother made Tillotson and her brother, who is older and doesn't live at home, earn money to reimburse her for the fines she paid for them; Tillotson is halfway there.

    "I think that's one of the best decisions parents can do for their children: Make them accountable for their actions," said her mother, Lori Lee.

    A phase that ends with responsibility

    As young people move past the teen years and gain more responsibility, they tend to be less inclined toward risk-taking, Luna said.

    Tillotson felt guilty about the pool situation, but since then, she's re-earned her mother's trust. And she's making adult choices: going to college, working as a restaurant hostess and postponing her beauty pageant participation to focus on her studies.

    She tries to encourage her sister Tessa, who's been getting into her own share of trouble at home, to think before she acts.

    Brain Injury Challenge

    My dear students: I have news for you, injuries present the greatest threat to your health. Injury in the form of ill advised behavior on a skateboard, in a car, while at a party, or while doing things that you've done all your life without even thinking. Do you wear a helmet when you ride your bike or roller blade? Then you already know that a helmet is a good way to avoid hurting your head. Head injuries are a kind of trauma, which is a medical term for any major injury to the body resulting from accident or violence.

    Go to the following link (it'll take you five minutes) and check out the cool brain learning trick from PBS:

    The PBS program NOVA has put together a neat little quiz. Imagine that you are working alongside a neurologist who has been called to the emergency room, and the following patients with head injuries come through the door. The doctor will make the final diagnosis, but he wants your input based on what you've just learned about the brain. So read each case and decide which part of the brain may have been injured.


    Patient #1

    Julie arrives by ambulance after being in a car accident. She's complaining that she can't feel anything in her lower body. What part of the body may Julie have injured?
    1. limbic system
    2. cerebellum
    3. spinal cord
    4. brain stem
    5. cerebral cortex

    Patient #2

    Jackie fell down the stairs and hurt her head. She has difficulty explaining what happened because she has trouble forming simple sentences. What part of the brain may Jackie have injured?
    1. limbic system
    2. cerebellum
    3. spinal cord
    4. brain stem
    5. cerebral cortex

    Patient #3

    Nathan hurt his head while falling off his bike a few days ago. He was wearing a helmet, but didn't have it on properly (it wasn't covering his forehead). His parents tell you he "just doesn't seem to be the Nathan we know." "He's been shy and quiet since the accident—before he was bubbly and outgoing." What part of the brain may Nathan have injured?
    1. limbic system
    2. cerebellum
    3. spinal cord
    4. brain stem
    5. cerebral cortex