Adolescents' brains

Adolescence in the development of a person is meant to prepare her or him for adulthood. This means that people must not only be able to conceive offspring but also to take good care of them. They must therefore be able to fulfill a meaningful role in their group and in their social environment. Puberty prepares a person for procreation and in further adolescence the youngster must learn to control his impulses and become a social being. Certainly not an easy task for a 'male', because he produces an overdose of testosterone to prepare himself for the hunt for food and for a partner. Under the influence of the extra production of the hormone testosterone, emotions and impulses can run high. 'Males' and 'females' must learn to deal with their own intentions and feelings as well as the intentions and feelings of others. They must learn to recognize those intentions. They must learn to delay behavior and ignore a short-term reward. Although the world of the 'males' and the 'females' no longer resembles that of today's boys and girls, the processes described above have not changed much. This is not surprising when one considers that only in the last 5000 years of the million years that hominids have existed, the physical environment and especially intellectual existence have changed drastically.

Young adolescents react not only to their parents but also to teachers and other authorities. Their behavior is impulsive and often downright annoying. They take big risks without worrying about the possible consequences. They only think of very short-term rewards, especially if it consists of the admiration of their peers. To make matters worse, they are also relatively insensitive to punishment in this phase. You wonder how it is possible that mankind made it through evolution despite such a completely idiotic stage in their development. Natural selection makes mincemeat with properties that stand in the way of proper functioning. But just because of the fact we're still here, that can't be the case. Adolescent and adolescent behavior can be very difficult but it is very necessary. Researchers looking at the brain and genetics from the perspective of evolution paint a positive picture of adolescence. An adolescent is not a semi-finished product, but a highly sensitive being, who can adapt well and has the best brains imaginable to make the step from the safe home to the complicated outside world. If adolescents mainly had traits such as fear of life, impulsiveness, rashness, selfishness, they would never pass through natural selection.

We must be careful to focus on the behavior of adolescents that annoys us and, based on that, only see this period as a problem. The short fuse, the preference for sometimes dangerous kicks, the rejection of the authority of parents and school and short-term thinking may be very impulsive, but it is of great importance in development to ensure that adolescents are open to new things. Adolescents should seek out new experiences, take risks, and exhibit impulsive behavior. Curiosity and the desire for excitement are necessary to give young people the push to fly away. Leaving the nest includes seeking out new experiences and taking greater risks without letting fear slow you down too much.

Rejection against the family and especially against your parents has the evolutionary advantage that the chance of inbreeding decreases. Moreover, the focus on the family gives way to focus on peers. Friendships become more intimate and more focused on trust and mutual evaluation. Adolescence is also an important period for learning to think critically and for learning to put yourself in someone else's shoes and thus understand someone else's perspective. For example: "He thinks she thinks he thinks because he thought before...".
Unfortunately, this development is not without its flaws. Almost all types of accidents are most common between the ages of 15 and 25. Alcohol and drug addiction also often started at that age.

Adolescents behave differently from adults in many ways. That's because their brains work differently. There is not yet an optimal balance between the functioning of different brain regions, which means that behavior can change quickly.

Not only are certain brain areas in the adolescence not yet fully grown, the communication between brain areas is also not yet very good. The thoughtless behavior of adolescents is a hallmark of that stage of development. Of course this has consequences for the way in which adolescents deal with new information to be learned. It also has consequences for the way they deal with emotions, such as with anger or sadness, and it has consequences for the way they deal with others. Moreover, it has a major influence on the image that adolescents have of themselves. That is, they are self-centered. This attitude is necessary to develop a self-image, a self-concept. The emotional system in close interaction with the prefrontal cortex also plays an important role in the development of a self-concept.

Adolescents mirror themselves to their friends. They try things out and see if they are accepted by their parents, their teachers but especially by their friends. Adolescents have friends because it's nice to be able to trust someone and share secrets. When this trust is betrayed, which often happens, especially in early adolescence, the suffering seems incalculable. Fighting, being temporarily expelled from the group or ignoring each other can be the result. Social exclusion activates the same areas in the brain as physical pain and thus is very unpleasant. It is even worse if exclusion is not temporary at all. Some young people are permanently ignored. This often goes hand in hand with bullying, especially in early adolescence. That is very harmful to the victims. It is the task of adults to set limits and to take measures to stop bullying. But whatever sanctions are taken, adolescents always continue to cross boundaries. Adolescence isn't just fun things. Annoying things, even bullying and exclusion, are part of it. However, the adequate response from adults is also part of it, both in a positive and negative sense.


Behavior changes during adolescence. Adolescents' view of others and of the world changes, as does their personality, motivation and self-belief. In addition, they develop metacognitive functions. That is, functions that make it possible to think about your own thinking. Strategies to gain autonomy and control over their own lives are increasing. All these changes in mental settings are the result of the structural and functional changes in their brains. Changes that at the same time can also cause adolescents to struggle with great existential insecurities. Some adolescents shout this from the rooftops, but with others they are barely visible. They keep their emotional storm inside.

Behavior is controlled by the brain and compared to adults, adolescents make less use of brain areas that are important in controlling behaviour. These areas of the brain are also important in signaling mistakes, thinking ahead and maintaining attention. If you add the infamous "short fuse" to that, it is not surprising that both their environment and themselves can suffer from their behavior. These areas are located in or controlled by the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is central to the regulation of many other brain regions. It regulates, among other things, our impulse control, the execution of complex behaviour, planning, organization and making choices. In adolescence, the prefrontal cortex is not yet fully developed. The development continues until about the twenty-fifth year of life.

Adults make extensive use of a brain system, in which events are compared with previous experiences. They can use that system better than adolescents, because their brains work faster and more efficiently and because they simply have more previous experiences. In themselves, adolescents use the same cognitive strategies as adults when solving problems. But in everyday life, when those tasks also have an emotional charge, it becomes more difficult. In that case, they are more likely to opt for a strategy that yields a profit in the short term. Winning is mainly about appreciation and even better admiration from peers. That can lead to risky behavior. They can often complete a task at an adult level, but the prefrontal cortex of adolescents has to work much harder for this, because the emotional system does not support the prefrontal cortex yet or too little. As a result, the prefrontal cortex of an adolescent reaches its limit more quickly.

However, most young people calmly move through puberty and, by extension, adolescence. Only 5% have real problems. This does not alter the fact that the behavior of adolescents, especially in a group, can be quite difficult to deal with and to manage. Also the behavior of the 95% 'normals'. Moreover, the 5% with problems include both young people who bring out their problem behavior and young people who keep it inside themselves. At first sight it looks like the latter group causes less problems. But they do cause problems for themselves and get in the way of their social development. In addition, they are not infrequently bullied or ignored by their peers.

Somatic markers

In adolescence, two brain systems develop that are important for behavior. One has to do with the development of the frontal cortex and thus involves logical thinking, planning, organizing, making choices and deciding. The other system has to do with emotional considerations and the emotional coloring of behavior. These two systems are closely related. The rational system of logical thinking is highly dependent on the emotional system. The emotional system, in turn, is dependent on experiences in the outside world and on fysical conditions that come from within the body. The order in which these systems develop is more or less the same for everyone, but the pace varies from person to person.

It is also difficult for adults to make a responsible assessment of personal and social problems. However, they are "helped" in this by a system that makes them feel bad about one choice, while the alternative option makes them feel good. Adults subconsciously rely on that system. It is part of their inner profile.

The way in which this happens is called the somatic marker in the theory of the American neuropsychologist Antonio Damasio. This theory is extensively discussed in this website on other pages.
Do adults always make the right decisions? No, certainly not, because this system also depends on how the brain constructs reality and how the institutions that make that construction, the so-called dispositional representations, have fixed reality in the brain. However, research shows that people who have to base their decisions purely on the rational system, for example because they have suffered serious brain damage to parts of the emotional system, make disastrous decisions, bad for themselves and those around them.
Higher cognitive functions are strongly determined by the genetic background of a person. The limits of behaviour, cognitive abilities and controlling emotions are largely determined by the genetic code. However, the environment in which a child grows up also plays an important role. The environment must ensure that the genetically determined abilities are stimulated, so that these genes are activated. A child who is born with a lot of cognitive talent needs his environment to develop this talent. Conversely, however, it is not the case that children with little innate talent can still develop cognitive talents in a promising environment. Usually environment and genetic background are closely related. A child who grows up in an underprivileged environment often belongs to a family that has lived in an underprivileged environment for generations. And thus the environment partly determines the genetic code.

Higher cognitive functions such as making choices, deciding, judging, reasoning, ordering, estimating, etc. are very important in learning. At a later stage, functions such as abstraction and generalization are added. In addition, the metacognitive functions also develop.
Some cognitive functions, such as language skills, are inherited by every child from birth, but others must be developed through upbringing and education. In order to do that, a young person needs thinking strategies and for those strategies he needs anchor points. Anchor points in the form of factual knowledge and criteria. Thinking strategies are not fixed in the brain. They are dynamic. Research shows that the thinking strategies that adolescents use do not differ much from the strategies that adults use. Moreover, adults are also not very good at using rational thinking strategies. People are not well able to rationally weigh all the pros and cons of a particular choice. Not even if they use pen and paper or a computer. In a complex situation, the number of alternatives in the future is simply too large to maintain an overview.

And therefore that is not the way adults make choices. When adults make choices, they use negative and positive experiences in a similar situation from the past. Emotions and feelings play just as important a role in thinking and decisions as cognitive strategies. A problem for adolescents is that they are not yet good at dealing with this way of sifting information. They miss the experiences of the past, but also the communication between essential parts of the brain is still too slow.

A 16 year old adolescent has to give a talk about cloning. He already did this topic once in primary school. He takes that paper and adjusts it here and there. It is a neat overview of what cloning is, where it has already been applied and who Herman the bull is and how it ended with him. In primary school, the assessment was very good. The result of his tald was assessed insufficient. He had provided a lot of information about cloning, but had not weighed the pros and cons against each other and he had not formulated a substantiated point of view. He is deeply disappointed. In the end, he knew exactly what cloning was, but he had no idea how to separate the pros and cons and reconnect them according to his own point of view. He felt that he had really looked at all the ins and outs of cloning, read all the pros and cons.


An expert in this field handles the information in a different way. For example, he reads an article about cloning and immediately sifts the important information from the non-important info. The expert categorizes the important information into clusters, which he can then use in his working memory to form a well-founded opinion. A built-in alarm system helps him with this. He does not have to think about much, but he feels: this is good and that is not. The American neurologist Damasio has called this somatic labeling.
Adolescents are not yet able to use this system well. The connections in and to the frontal cortex are not yet fast enough for it and, moreover, they do not have enough relevant information or experiences stored in the long-term memory.
A young person gains a lot of experiences every day, which then provide him with knowledge and criteria to be able to reach a decision faster and better. This form of learning is based on striking or radical events that have triggered a whole range of emotions, feelings and thoughts. This happens more or less by chance and you can therefore call this form of learning incidental or implicit.
Although there are enough striking and dramatic events at school and among the students, school learning is not. The curriculum is precisely for the purpose of allowing the students to very consciously gain very specific pre-determined experiences. There is no student who, unless he happens to grow up in a German-speaking environment, will learn German of his own accord. You can call this kind of learning intentional or explicit learning. Often this learning is based on Hebb's model. A model that describes how repetition strengthens certain neurological networks in the brain, as a result of which a person increasingly masters a skill.