The Adolescent Brain – Crazy by Design


WE TEND to think of adolescence as a time of turbulence; a crazy, tumultuous period in human life that is often marked by stormy arguments, sullen silences, hormones run amok and a roller-coaster ride of befuddling emotions that drive teenagers to poor decisions and risky behaviour.

The media depicts the typical teen experience as suffused with insecurities, awkwardness, discomfort with one’s developing body, a struggle for self-identity, a yearning for peer acceptance and a distrust for persons of authority, parents in particular.

Parents know, only too well, how their teenager can almost seem like an alien species – mysterious one moment, and then wildly emotional and completely unpredictable and impulsive another. Some ups and downs are inevitable during the teenage years, but adolescence is also a time when psychological challenges start to take root as stable aspects of the personality – and that can surely impact a teen’s welfare and future.

Bad behaviour can be irritating at best and dangerous at worst, and poor choices can have lifetime consequences or even lead to loss of life. Accidental deaths, aggressive impulses, reckless risk-taking and rule breaking, and binge drinking, spike during the teenage years. It’s also the time of life when psychosis, eating disorders, and addictions are most likely to sink in their hooks. Studies also show that everyday unhappiness and disillusionment also reaches its peak in late adolescence.

Historical Tantrums

People often ask, “Is adolescence and all the erratic behaviour that manifests around it a recent phenomenon in modern culture? The answer is, most probably not. There are plenty of narratives of adolescence in historical literature that match our observations of teen behaviour today. Throughout our historical literature, many have cited dark forces that distinctly impinge on the teen.

As far back as 2,300 years ago, Aristotle had come to the conclusion that “the young are heated by Nature as drunken men by wine”.

A shepherd in William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, published in 1623, wishes “there were no age between ten and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting.”

His passionate lament is echoed in most modern scientific inquiries as well. Psychologist, G. Stanley Hall, in his 1904 Adolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion and Education, believed this period of “storm and stress” replicated the raw and less civilized earlier stages of human development. Psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud saw adolescence as an expression of agonizing psychosexual conflict.

It is convenient to blame peer pressure or raging hormones for some of this troublesome behaviour, but recent studies in neuroscience suggest that there is also a physiological connection that deserves to be understood.

Scientists used to think that human brain development was pretty much completed by age 12, but new research has turned up some surprises about the timing of brain maturation and the remarkable capacity for brain plasticity during the adolescent growth phase. In the past decade or so, mainly due to advances in brain imaging technology such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and functional MRI (fMRI), neuroscientists have started to look into the interior of the living human brain of all ages, and to track changes in brain structure and brain function.

So many labs around the world are involved in this kind of research, and we now have a really rich and detailed picture of how the living human brain develops throughout adolescence. In key ways, the adolescent brain is still a work in progress and only completes its development to form the adult brain in the mid-20s.

Next Instalment:
Inside The Adolescent Brain

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Chamberlain, A. F. (1904), Adolescence: Its Psychology and its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion, and Education. By G. Stanley Hall, American Anthropologist, 6: 539–541.

Main Image: Carlos Caetano /

Shyla Sreedharan is the founder and senior counselor at Therapy Rocks.

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