new brain research about young teens and identity formation

my friend (and YMCP participant) gavin richardson sent me a link to a report on a fascinating new brain study (read the summary of findings here).

brain scanthe researchers did MRI brain scans of a group of 10 year olds (pre-pubescent), and again, on the same kids, when they were 13. while the scans were taking place, the researchers asked them a series of questions: some were particularly focused on self-perception and identity issues (and, even more particularly, on identity issues connected to social interaction), while other questions merely focused on knowledge.

they found no significant difference in brain function on the knowledge questions. BUT, they found a significant difference in brain activity (focused in part of the pre-frontal cortex) with the self-perception and identity questions.

my thoughts:

1. i find this to be a wonderful scientific confirmation of the reality that after puberty, young teens begin the trek into the new world of abstract thinking; and a big part of abstract thinking is the new possibility of third-person perspective. in other words, young teens, unlike their pre-teen counterparts, have the ability (if not practice) to view themselves, and other people and objects and issues, from another’s perspective. this new third-person thinking is rocket fuel to the adolescent task of identity formation. without self-perception and some sense of how others view me, it’s difficult to form an active identity.

2. the part of the brain that was really firing–the part where the difference showed up–was the pre-frontal cortex. this is a big deal. on one hand, it makes complete sense that it was that part of the brain, since it’s that part of the brain that’s responsible for higher-order thought (and third-person perspective, including self-perception, is complex stuff). but here’s what’s significant about that: the pre-frontal cortex (or frontal lobes) is also the part of the brain that we’ve heard so much about in adolescents over the last 10 years. MRIs have shown us that the frontal lobes of teenagers are significantly underdeveloped, something we didn’t know until MRIs helped us look at live, healthy teenage brains in action. the reality of underdeveloped frontal lobes (responsible for all sorts of important things, like wisdom, prioritization, impulse control, decision making, and other critical thinking skills) has become, wrongly in my opinion, cause for assuming that teenagers are not capable of these thought processes. this study confirms for me: sure, teenagers (and particularly young teens) are limited in their decision-making, prioritization, impulse control and so on; BUT they are NOT incapable.

parents and youth workers: let’s get those pre-frontal cortexes firing. i’m convinced that, other than the mysterious transforming work of God, frontal lobe development is about the most critical aspect of both faith formation and the move to adulthood.

5 thoughts on “new brain research about young teens and identity formation”

  1. marko – great blog, thx for posting. i agree with you “they are NOT incapable.” the tension i deal with is helping teens to identify discrepancies in priorities, but then i look to their parents who help to foster unhealthy priority patterns…and frustration ensues. but another tension is the extent of their capability and knowing how to encourage and when to rebuke in grace. anyway, love the study of the brain in relation to youth ministry. thx again.

  2. Marko – yes this is a big deal but on the other hand, teens will continue to be teens and its those working with them that have to get serious about their development. For anyone to label a teen as ‘not capable…’ or any other static definition is simply nonsense. Teens are growing in their capacities. This means, those working with them need to be really informed on the movement of development. Sure their executive function is not fully developed but where ever it is (its a moving target) that is where we need to jump on the moving bus and move with them. For me, I see it as watching God create in them capacities for thinking and relating. We youth pastors get to watch God’s amazing creation unfold – merely labeling them in static places is kind of foul to appreciating God’s active work in an adolescents life. Thanks for posting this. We had a neuro-psychologist help teach a mini-course for our youth ministry students a while back. One of the best mini-courses we’ve done. Thanks again.

  3. From my reading and understanding adolescents tend to move back and forth between child like thinking and adult thinking. Its not something that happens all at once and its not something that happens at a specific point in time. Its one of the reasons we can think that a kid is all grown up one day and wonder what happened to him the next. Also culturally it seems that this process has gone on for a longer period of time and actual permanant adult thinking is delayed longer thatn it used to be.

  4. Yes, Jim, that may be true but another angle on that is that we interpret them to be “all grown up” or ‘immature’ based on our impressions of what they are saying and doing. For example, I’ve had college aged youth pastors think that 12 yr olds are profound adults when they ask questions about why bad things happen to good people. They forget that just because the college student talks about theodicy in a College class doesn’t mean the teen is thinking in the same categories. The teen may simply want confidence that God won’t hurt them tomorrow. Kinda like a 2 yr old asking ‘why’ all the time – its not because they really want good reasons for every little things existence. They are simply learning to engage in vocal dialogue that elicits a response from an adult. Teens may move back and forth from concrete to abstract forms experimenting with ideas. Our privilege is to keep up and continue to expand with them pastoring a decent practical theology along the way.

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