The January 28 edition of Terry Gross’ Fresh Air distributed by National Public Radio featured an interview with the chair of the University of Pennsylvania Neurology Department, Frances Jensen. The subject was a relatively in depth discussion of the teenage brain. At one level a lot of this is news that has been available. The front of the brain, where judgment is processed, is a part that does not really fully develop until an adult enters his or her early 20s. But Jensen’s interview reveals more than the sound bites that we have become used to accepting as substantive information. I listened to the interview while driving so that I cannot profess to have absorbed this accurately but here were some of the information I was able to absorb.
High levels of stress inflicted on teenagers can contribute to depression that can afflict them throughout adulthood.
High rates of teenage suicide correlate to the fact that teenagers can’t really evaluate what suicide means.
The marijuana of today is far more effective than that of olden times and teenage brain receptors for this substance physically absorb more of its most dangerous components than the brains of fully formed adults. In other words, the stuff is more dangerous and the teenager is more vulnerable. Kids who smoke these drugs on weekends have cognitive impairment that goes on for days after the “smoke” was ingested.
In addition to the fact that they have not formed the ability to process risk in the same way as a fully matured adult, teenagers can often lack the brain processing power to experience and express empathy for another’s loss or sadness. So that’s why your kid seemed ambivalent about your auto accident or the death of grandma.
The interview with Dr. Jensen also revealed some things about us. Yes, we are struggling to keep up in a world where technology can now carpet bomb our brains with information. The studies she has examined show that our ability to juggle multiple tasks apexes in our mid to late 30s. The editor of this blog is in his late 30s and as a former editor I am resigned to employing old age and treachery to overcome his youth and skill.
The interview is well worth the time if you have a child in the nightmare years. It might be well worthwhile to listen to with that child. As most of us know, teenagers think they know everything anyway so perhaps even if they don’t credit their parents, they might give some deference to a professor of neurology.