Strengthening Good Connections
Most people associate adolescence with a short but intense period of physical change during the early teenage years. To neuroscientists, however, adolescence is far longer lasting and more significant. From a brain development perspective, adolescence begins at age nine or 10 and lasts until our mid- to late 20s. Like early childhood, what happens to us during this period of our lives—the habits, relationships, and interests we form—continues to affect us throughout our lives. And like early childhood, the experiences we have in adolescence continue to shape areas of our brain architecture, determining everything from how we handle stress to what we find most rewarding to our ability to make responsible decisions.
Reward Versus Risk
Brains don’t develop uniformly; brain development happens in stages, and different regions of the brain develop at different rates and different times. While sensory abilities like vision and hearing get fully connected early in childhood, the part of the brain responsible for Air Traffic Control (the pre-frontal cortex) continues to develop well into a person’s 20s.
On the other hand, the brain’s reward-and-motivation system is well developed by early adolescence; in fact, the sensation of reward a person feels in response to gratifying experiences is more intense during adolescence than at any time before or after. The robustness of this system is an essential part of development, driving young people to explore, to seek out new experiences and relationships, and to pursue interests with intense focus and passion.
A high-functioning reward-and-motivation system may also lead to risks posed by potentially addictive activities like substance misuse or consumption of pornography. Because the air traffic control system is not yet fully online, the adolescent’s ability to suppress impulsive behaviour is limited—even if he or she is capable of understanding the irrationality of a particular course of action.
When the rewards are highly attractive and the risks are muted, adolescents may engage in behaviour that carries immediate or long-term risks for poor health and social outcomes. Strong adult relationships in adolescents’ lives are important on an ongoing basis, not only to encourage healthy and productive interests, but also to step in as a kind of surrogate air traffic control system to forestall certain kinds of risky behaviour.
Building the Brain’s “Air Traffic Control” System: How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function
Forming Brain Pathways
As the brain matures during adolescence, it forms new neurological connections, strengthens useful ones, and prunes unused ones. How we spend our time during adolescence determines which pathways our brains form, nurture, and discard. Adolescents tend to be attracted to novel experiences. This attraction is healthy, but the experiences don’t necessarily lead to healthy brain development. Young people can be driven to cultivate talents, pursue interests, and form strong friendships, or to experiment with substance misuse, engage in risky sexual behaviour, and participate in dangerous activities. An adolescent who spends a lot of time pursuing positive and constructive interests is likely to develop a brain that is wired to value and seek out similarly positive experiences. However, an adolescent whose time is devoted to negative and destructive pursuits will tend to develop neurological pathways that solidify those behaviours into lifelong habits.
The ongoing presence of engaged adults in an adolescent’s life greatly increases the chances of cultivating constructive interests and avoiding potentially harmful activities.
Good Community Connections Support Good Brain Connections
Adolescents need guidance to find and pursue the activities and interests that are most likely to help them form strong, healthy brain connections. Behavioural studies show that adolescents are highly motivated by the admiration of peers and adults. Activities that engage young people with peers, parents, teachers, coaches, and other supportive adults help develop these healthy interests and brain connections. The more closely adolescents are connected by positive relationships to role models and peers in their communities, the more robust their positive neurological connections will become—and the more likely they are to avoid potentially harmful behaviours and addictive substances.