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Understanding the Adolescent Brain


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Title: Understanding the Adolescent Brain

Understanding the Adolescent Brain
  • Presented by
  • Garfield Gini-Newman
  • Associate Professor
  • OISE/University of Toronto
  • ggininewman_at_oise.utoronto.ca

"The young people of today think of nothing but
themselves. They have no reverence for parents or
old age. They are impatient of all restraint.
They talk as if they alone knew everything and
what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness
with them. As for girls, they are forward,
immodest and unwomanly in speech, behaviour and
Socrates c. 400 B.C.E.
Wikipedia generation is lazy and unprepared for
universitys rigours, survey of faculty
says Toronto Star, April 6, 2009
The evidence is strong that they Net Geners are
the smartest generation ever. They have been
given the opportunity to fulfill their inherent
human intellectual potential as no other
generation. Don Tapscott, Grown Up Digital, 2009
Some recommended reading
Does a child's belief about intelligence have
anything to do with academic success?
  • 100 seventh graders, all doing poorly in math,
    randomly assigned to workshops
  • One workshop gave lessons on how to study well.
  • The other taught about the nature of
    intelligence and the brain.

  • Students in the latter group "learned that the
    brain actually forms new connections every time
    you learn something new, and that over time, this
    makes you smarter.
  • By the end of the semester, the group who had
    been taught that the brain can grow smarter, had
    significantly better math grades than the other

Nurturing a Growth Mindset
  • Fixed Mindset
  • See intelligence as fixed - something you are
    born with
  • Success/failure is what is expected
  • School is about demonstrating your worth
  • Avoid challenges which may not immediately yield
  • Growth Mindset
  • see setbacks as a challenge that motivate
  • success is about stretching oneself
  • intelligence comes from hard work
  • School is an opportunity to expand intelligence

Think of an Adolescent You Know
  • Reflecting on an
  • adolescent you know,
  • how many characteristics
  • of the typical teenage can
  • you list?

Marching to a Different Circadian Rhythm!
  • Teens begin to secrete melatonin, chemical
    neurotransmitter which makes us feel drowsy, 1 to
    3 hours later and it lingers on later in the
  • Teens sleep needs far exceed adults they need
    at least 9 hours
  • Teens are the most sleep-deprived segment of
    North American society

Implications of Sleep Deprivation for the
Adolescent Learning
  • Do less well in school
  • Experience a greater feeling of sadness and
  • Greater mood swings (less able to control
  • Less able to process emotions and are therefore
    prone to raw emotional outbursts
  • Causes an elevated level of the stress hormone,
  • Impairs ability to process glucose which
    contributes to obesity and type-2 diabetes both
    on the rise among North American teens

Your Brain The Great Inhibitor
  • Brain development is essentially progressive

  • As children grow their inhibition
  • machinery becomes more finely tuned
  • Because the teens prefrontal cortex is not fully
    developed they are prone to more impulsive

Social Relationships and the Cerebellum
  • Until recently, the cerebellum was assumed to
    control movement but have little other
  • It now appears to be much more important in a
    wide range of behaviours including recognizing
    social cues

Social Relationships and the Cerebellum
  • The cerebellum appears to
  • Be the least heritable part of the brain (and
    therefore most shaped by the environment)
  • Change throughout adolescence
  • Be the last area of the brain to finish pruning
    and remodeling even later than the frontal lobes

Social Relationships and the Cerebellum
  • What are the implications and/or insights
    suggested by this new understanding of the

Emotions in Early Adolescence
  • As the brain matures, it becomes more capable of
    impulse control and is better able at focused and
    sustained attention.

  • Everyone gets angry everyone has felt a desire
    for vengeance. The capacity to control impulses
    that arise from these feelings is the function of
    the prefrontal cortexit takes many years for the
    necessary biological processes to hone a
    prefrontal cortex into an effective efficient
    executive. The fifteen-year-old brain does not
    have the biological machinery to inhibit impulses
    in the service of long-range planning.
  • Daniel Weinberger, director of the Clinical Brain
  • Disorders Laboratory at the National Institutes
    of Health

Seeking Thrills
  • During adolescence increasing levels of dopamine
    in the prefrontal cortex appear to be offset by
    decreases in the nucleus accumbens and other
    reward circuits.
  • Implications teens with dopamine depleted
    reward systems need a greater stimulation to get
    the same sense of satisfaction as a young child
    or an adult

Neurons that fire together, wire together!
  • Learning is a matter of making
  • connections.

The Process of Long Term Potentiation
  • When information (stimuli) is received, a trail
  • along a series of neurons is blazed making it
  • easier for subsequent messages to fire along the
  • same path. The more the path is re-fired the more
  • permanent the message or new learning becomes.
  • Each time an activity is repeated the bonds
  • between neurons strengthen and expand, leading
  • to an entire network developing which remembers
  • the skill or information.

Considering how the brain learns...
  • ...how and why is the behaviour
  • of an adolescent similar to that
  • of a 2 year old?

At both stages, the brain is responding to...
  • ...a massive build up of connections and pruning
    away excess connections allowing for a more
    refined and efficient brain.

Brain Sculpting
  • Imagine you have set out to capture
  • the essence of who you are in a
  • marble sculpture. Reflect back to
  • what life was like at age 11 or 12.
  • Walk yourself through the defining
  • experiences of your adolescence.
  • While doing so, imagine yourself
  • chipping away the excess marble to
  • allow for the emergence of your adult
  • self.

Shaping the mature brain
  • The brain sculpts itself through its
  • experience with the world.
  • Teenagers need to realize that the
  • brain is the only organ in the body
  • that is sculpted through
  • experience. What they are doing
  • with their brain now is going to
  • determine what their brain is going
  • to become as an adult.

Pruning of the Adolescent Brain
Remember that...
  • ...if teens are doing music and sports and
    academics, thats how brains will be hardwired.
    If they are doing video games and MTV and lying
    on the couch, that will be how they are
    hardwired. Jay Giedd


The Myelination Process
  • Understanding Myelination
  • Myelin is a fatty, waxy substance that wraps
    itself around the axon
  • Myelin insulates the axon so that the electrical
    impulse travels more efficiently
  • The neurons you need to survive will myelinate
  • Before a neuron is myelinated it is called
  • Myelination results in the creation of a more
    efficient brain

The Four Stages of Myelination
  • Development Stages
  • Birth to 2 years
  • 2 to 7 Years
  • 7 to 12 years
  • Adolescence

Myelin Release Parts of the Cerebellum, Parietal
and Occipital Lobes (Primary Motor control area,
Visual Processing Area, and Primary Sensory
Area) Lobes dealing with speaking and language
comprehension Temporal Lobe, Parietal Lobe and
Cerebellum (memory, integrating sensory data and
movement) Frontal Lobe (decision making, goal
setting, reasoning)
Important Observations for Understanding
  • The frontal lobes are the last
  • to be myelinated occurring as
  • late as the early 20s.
  • What adolescent behaviour is
  • explained by this
  • observation?
  • What are the parenting
  • implications of this
  • observation?

Teens need to solve problems and practice
decision making.
  • Have teens apply learning to solve real
  • Teach teens to use decision making models
  • Invite teens to consider implications and cause
    and consequence
  • Involve teens in making reasoned choices

How does the brain learn best?
  • Through experiential learning requiring children
    to move from the concrete to the abstract
  • Through problem solving and decision making
  • Through allowing children to fail forward
  • Scaffolding - do not ask an adolescent to
    multi-task until the learning has been
  • Physical and other activities that improve
  • These types of activities activate the area of
  • the brain responsible for critical thinking and
  • problem solving. The more we do with
  • adolescents which requires they solve
  • problems, the more we assist in strengthening
  • the area of the brain responsible for decision
  • making.

Teens Window of Opportunity The pre-frontal
Window of Sensitivity
  • The flip side of the window of opportunity is the
    window of sensitivity
  • While the window of development is open,
    harmful effects can have potentially greater
  • A young child how has several serious ear
    infections may impair their ability to
    distinguish sounds later in life, but those same
    ear infections in an adult will not have the same

Teens and the Window of Sensitivity
  • Window of sensitivity to alcohol is wide open for
  • potential damaging effects of alcohol far greater
    for teens than for adults

Four Basic Emotions
  • Researchers generally agree
  • there are four basic emotions
  • and that all other emotions
  • are created from combinations
  • of these four.
  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Joy

Emotions, the Amygdala and the Teenage Brain
  • Any information received by the brain travels
    first to the amygdala
  • The amygdala holds emotional memory - it tells
    you how you feel about things
  • In the teenage brain, the amygdala is developing
    faster than the frontal lobes
  • So, teenagers tend to be reactive not reflective

Reading Facial Expressions
Emotion drives attention and attention drives
  • In her book Brain Matters, Pat Wolfe
  • noted
  • The brain is biologically
  • programmed to attend first to
  • information that has a strong
  • emotional content. It is also
  • programmed to remember this
  • information longer.

What happens when the brain gets hijacked by
negative emotions?
  • The body is readied for the fight
  • or flight response. The body is
  • primed with adrenaline preparing
  • it for the fastest physical reaction.
  • The hypothalamus activates the
  • amygdala, which in turn
  • produces anger, rage, or
  • threatening behaviour.

Ten Strategies for Guiding the Adolescent Brain
  1. Take care of the brain with proper sleep,
    hydration, nutrition and avoid caffeine after
    noon and beware the dangers of substance abuse.
  2. Encourage extra curricular activities which
    develop social skills, physical fitness, problem
    solving, and encourage reading.
  3. Be clear, explicit and avoid asking teens to

  1. Assist children in learning to chunk information.
  2. Encourage problem solving, making connections,
    and involve children in identifying the problems
    in their actions and assist them in seeing the
  3. Natural and logical consequences are preferable
    to punitive measures

  1. Whenever possible, encourage children to build on
    their interests and talents remember that
    intelligence is the ability to solve problems or
    create a product of value.
  2. Recognize that emotions dominate and that teens
    are more likely to react than to reflect assist
    them in making wise choices and avoid anger as a

  • Assist children in their learning by helping them
    move from the concrete to the abstract and
    remember that being there is the most powerful
    way to learn.
  • Above all, be patient remember
    teenage brain is a
  • work in progress!
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