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July 23, 2017

* This story originally aired on WGBH News on September 20, 2016.

Greater Boston: Frances Jensen and WGBH's Jim Braude discuss the teenage brain 

It’s move-in day at Emerson College in Boston, and Patrick and Beth Aylmer of Topsfield are helping their 18-year-old son, Jack, set up his dorm room - plugging in his television and X-Box, and straightening his folders.

“He won't use any of those things. The shelving unit... None of that. [They] won't get used," Beth Aylmer says, pointing to materials she’s brought to help her son stay organized.

“The only thing that I’m really worried about is just him staying focused on his school – on scholastics,” she adds.

As she hugs her son goodbye, Beth gives Jack Aylmer some last-minute advice, whispering in his ear.

“Be a good boy. Make good choices,” she says, tearing up.

Neuroscientists say the way teenagers are wired makes it hard for them to follow that advice and make good choices. Their brains aren’t developed enough to suppress peer pressure and risk-taking behaviors like binge drinking or chronic marijuana use.

“The brain is not done [developing] until your mid- to late-twenties, so when you enter college, your brain is not mature. When you finish college, your brain is still not mature," said Frances Jensen, Chair of the Department of Neurology at the University of Pennsylvania.


Frances Jensen chairs the Department of Neurology at the University of Pennsylvania (Kirk Carapezza/WGBH)

Jensen compares the teenage brain to a red Ferrari without brakes.

“The connectivity of the brain is developing from the back to the front, and the last place to connect is the frontal lobe. So the emotional areas -- which are behind -- are very much in control -- the driver, if you will. The frontal lobes would be the brakes, but they're not on," Jensen explained.

Jensen says teenagers have an edge in that they can learn faster, but they’re also more susceptible to peer pressure than their older peers - and biology might be at fault.

“It's not that you're a bad person. You may have friends who, unfortunately, appear to be getting addicted to something. [It’s important to recognize that] it's a process, which is happening to their brains. You need to show empathy and try to help them get help to sort of be on the alert a bit," she said.

Jensen gives similar advice to parents, teachers and administrators. She's a big believer that good science can lead to good teaching.

But there are skeptics.

“We’ve been educating people for thousands of years without any brain knowledge. Some places have done it well, some places have done it poorly,” said Howard Gardner, a psychologist and co-founder of Harvard College’s Mind, Brain, and Education Initiative.

Gardner admits that neuroscience is very hot right now, but he questions how much brain research can be applied in higher education.

“The fact that we know the hippocampus is larger or smaller - or the frontal lobe is activated or not - that's one of a thousand bits of information to pack in, but it should never be the basis of a decision,” Gardner said.


Even though teenage brains aren't fully developed at the end of college, Gardner says educators have to decide what's important and what kinds of skills, knowledge and behaviors they want to pass on to students.

Gardner says shaping behavior is all about conditioning kids when they're young.

Take the Chinese: college kids there, in general, aren't binge drinking, surfing elevators, or filling their dorm rooms with sand for a beach party.

Gardner figured out why back in the 1980s when he visited China and he was astounded that three- and four-year old kids could sit for several minutes - even hours - without much fuss.

“I said, 'My God! How could they possibly do that? Are they some kind of freaks?’" Gardner recalled. "They weren’t freaks. Their brains weren’t any different than anybody’s else’s, but kids are tremendously affected by who’s around them and what they’re doing.”

And Gardner points out that we all need role models: While it slows down and may be more Chevy than Ferrari, our brain is still developing, even into our 70s, 80s and 90s.

Earlier: The Science Behind A Memorable Commencement Speech

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