The Adolescent Brain

Mark Oestreicher has a very interesting post regarding the adolescent brain. I haven’t had a chance to work through some of the links he gives, but I found the basic AllState ad to be interesting, as well as Mark’s responses. I agree with him 100% that just because a portion of the brain is not fully developed it does not follow that teens have no culpability for their actions. What would be truly fascinating is to find out if teens have always been like this – or if it is a result of the extended adolescence that we embrace in the western world. I doubt this is possible since we most likely lack brain scans of adolescents in the 1700s.

Let me elaborate a little on what I mean. Once upon a time older teens and young twenty-somethings were expected to make good decisions. They sometimes did, and sometimes didn’t, much like other adults. I have to be honest, I’m skeptical of the research. I’ve several reasons. One is that I think my dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex is just fine, and I’ve been making good decisions for several years now. It would be interesting to see if my brain is more developed than the average 22 year old. Also, if the research is correct I think it has implications for things like military service. If an eighteen year old is incapable (as the AllState ad seems to imply) of making a correct decision regarding traffic and other car related issues, should such an eighteen year old be allowed to shoot at things with a gun? One could also say it has implications across the board: should eighteen year olds be allowed to go to college and thereby make a decision about what the rest of their lives will look like? Obviously some of this is hyperbole on my part, but I think that to some extent we live in a society where things such as this happen because we expect them to and because we allow adolescents to continue making poor decisions later and later into life for whatever reasons.

Back to Mark’s post, I wish I had been at the pastors summit he mentions. It would be interesting to know if Dr. Clements was getting at what I just said above, or something a bit different. Is it possible that by not expecting teens to deal with the consequences of their decisions we actually hinder their development?

Regarding Mark’s final thoughts: implications for under twenty-five year old interns. I have a personal policy that no one under twenty-five is officially endorsed by the youth ministry as a “ride” to any event. Nor is anyone who has had a moving traffic violation in the past year. At the same time, I think under twenty-five year olds can be a huge help in ministry. Look at the person, interact with the person, and learn who they are. That will be far more helpful than some research. But this is perhaps a conversation we need to have, so it is positive that the research can hopefully begin such a dialog.

If I may digress a moment, I want to make it clear that I think this research could have some very positive results for junior high ministry. We need to understand that teens are still developing. I am skeptical of the expanding adolescence in the US, however, and so when we start talking about twenty-somethings I think we need to realize that they are not the same as junior highers. In the same way I think that those of us in youth ministry often do not expect enough from junior highers. So, my main question: is this nature or nurture? Are we brewing our own poison by expecting twenty-somethings to be bad decision-makers? Does the potential problem go further back, are we hindering the development of adolescents by not expecting them to deal with consequences or by trying to modify their behavior through misguided means?

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