teenage brain research hits the streets

this is fascinating to me. allstate has an advertisement out completely built on the research of adolescent brain development (specifically about the underdeveloped prefrontal cortex — the decision making center of the brain) that i’ve been posting about so much (see here (primal teen review), here (thoughts about the proliferation then winnowing of neurons prior to and after puberty), here (purely speculative rumination about mary’s cognitive ability — this one really ticked some people off!), here (just a cartoon), here (link to an excellent overview article), here (notes from jh pastors summit of dr. todd clements presentation), here (discussion of implications for teaching middle schoolers), and here (discussion of implications for younger youth ministry volunteers).

here’s the ad (sorry it’s a bit pixilated):


here’s some of the ad copy:

Why do most 16 year olds drive like they are missing part of their brain? Because they are.

Even bright, mature teenagers sometimes do things that are ‘stupid.’ But when that happens, it’s not really their fault. It’s because their brain hasn’t finished developing. The underdeveloped area is called the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex. It plays a critical role in decision making, problem solving and understanding future consequences of today’s actions. Problem is, it won’t be fully mature until they’re into their 20s.

Car crashes injure about 300,000 teens a year and kill 6,000.

anastasia (who has written about her mild skepticism of the research claims) reports that people have predicted this research will be used (in good ways and bad) by pharmaceutical companies. she quotes dr. robert epstein:

The drug companies have a strong incentive to convince public policymakers, researchers, media professionals and the general public that faulty brains underlie all our problems — and, of course, that pharmaceuticals can fix those problems. Researchers, in turn, have a strong incentive to convince the public and various funding agencies that their research helps to “explain” important social phenomena.

i have a couple problems with this ad, which override the fact that i welcome ‘implicationing’ of research:

1. if you’re going to show a cute little brain, don’t imply there’s a puzzle-piece section that is all about cars. yeah, i get the idea — but i think it subtly teaches a handful of wrong concepts about the brain (wrong concepts that, in this case, allstate would like you to embrace).

2. “it’s not really their fault” is an absurd jump in reasoning. if all the new research is accurate, it still only provides an understanding of why teenagers struggle to make good decisions (among other implications). it does NOT remove culpability for lousy decisions! in fact, when dr. todd clements spoke to our jh pastors summit about this issue, he stressed that the only real way to help students through this period of time when they don’t have the brain function for optimized decision making is to consistently expect them to live with the consequences of their choices – good and bad (instead of guilt, bullying, promises of reward or punishment, and other attempts at behavior modification that do not really make sense given what we know about the adolescent brain).

related: i DO find it interesting that car rental companies have known this for years — not based on brain research, but based on empirical data from their rental crashes. car rental companies have, for years, not allowed drivers to be under 25 (the age todd clements told us young adult reach full “capacity” for wisdom maturity). we — at the jh pastors summit — had a tough conversation about what this means for those of us with a bunch of under-25 volunteers who drive middle schoolers around, or under-25 interns.

8 thoughts on “teenage brain research hits the streets”

  1. Great minds think a like – as soon as I read “it’s not really their fault” I had the same reaction and said “no it is their fault and they need to deal with the consequences of their actions.” I’ve said this once on another comment that the book series, “Raising teens with love and logic” is an excellent resources for anyone walking through life with teens.

  2. do you ever feel like you spend just as much time putting together your blog as you do the books you write? Maybe you’ve figured out a way to make $ of your blog so it’s worth it. I sure haven’t. I write about watching my boys play WII. You write about things I want to read. Here’s a praise: You write GOOD.

  3. And I’m supposed to be the leader of leaders… and i’m under 25… i wonder what part of my brain i’m still missing…

  4. Whilst I agree it is dangerous and irresponsible to imply that young people’s participation in risk taking behaviour [including driving dangerously] is not their fault, I think there is another important point for us youth workers to consider. Too much consideration about young people’s participation in RTB comes from a purely adult focused perspective. As adults we tend to focus on the potential negative consequences of ‘risk’ behaviour. Young people instead often tend to consider the potential for positive benefits to their participation in ‘risky’ activities. These may include peer acceptance, image, the ‘escape’ from a hopeless and miserable existance. Maybe their choices, rather than purely illogical and ‘stupid’ are in some ways rational. At least as youth workers we need to consider this, and look beyond the behaviour, to the underlying potential social and motivational causes, as well as biological factors, to why young people do ‘stupid’ things.

  5. I fear that where these ads are going is further restriction of the rights of adolescents.

    We expect our adolescents to grow, but we refuse to treat them as individuals (instead relying on age) and increasingly try to insulate them from the results of their decisions.

    I’ve read that housecats are really nothing more than oversized kittens, because the dependency on humans has frozen their development at the kitten stage. I wonder how well that applies to today’s adolescent. We prevent them from drinking, driving, voting, and yet we still want them to be “mature” and responsible members of society.

    Gangs provide well-defined roles, responsibilities, and growth paths. They also are organized for very negative purposes. How can we mirror that structure but bend it for good purposes while giving our youth a way to grow?

  6. As I read the article and comments all I could think of was how important it is for students to have loving adults in their lives. With loving adults in their lives, so what if their brain isn’t fully formed yet. It’s okay, that’s one reason the loving adults are there. Without loving adults it’s a big loss with potentially big consequences during that time period before their brains are fully formed. God help us be those loving adults – some of us who also wonder if our brain’s are fully formed.

  7. As a psych major in youth ministry, I have been interested in this subject for a while. I did a term paper for my physiological psychology class a couple years ago about adolescent brain debelopment and I didn’t find a whole lot. I did find several studies about the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus in brain development. It makes me wonder how many teens are diagnosed with things like ADHD when it really has to do with brain development. There are also a lot of differences with males and females. I would love to research and learn more about this stuff…

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