Inside the Teenage Brain

November 7th, 2012 by Andrea Bennett

Results of a new study indicate that teens can excel at controlling impulses.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

It might seem convenient to blame teens’ risky and irresponsible behavior on immaturity and an inability to control impulses, but according to new research, it may not be as simple as that.

In a recent study, teens actually took more time than adults in making a thoughtful decision when they were offered a modest reward. The researchers, from Weill Cornell Medical College, insist that while teenage brains can be impulsive, they are also dynamic and highly responsive to rewards and positive feedback.

In an interview with NPR, the study’s coauthor B.J. Casey noted that previous studies had suggested that the adolescent brain is wired to engage in risky behavior. These past reports had concluded that teens are prone to irresponsible behavior because the “reward systems” in their brains are hypersensitive, while the circuits dictating self-control are not fully developed. According to Casey, however, “Teenagers are quite capable of waiting, as opposed to reacting impulsively.”

The study itself, conducted by Casey and her colleague Theresa Teslovich, asked participants to decide which way a cloud of jittering dots was moving across a computer screen. When teens were playing with a reward at stake, they took longer than adults to make a decision. The researchers claim that this delay allowed teenagers to accumulate more information before making up their minds.

As Casey told Science News, the study provided an “example in which we’re seeing adolescents being not impulsive at all, but in fact, incredibly thoughtful before making a decision.” Brain scans helped the researchers pinpoint the neural origins of this teenage thoughtfulness. When a reward was on the line, both adults and teens displayed a boost of brain activity in the ventral striatum, or “reward system.”

Finding evidence that teens can be deliberate in their decision-making is surprising, according to neuroscientist Jay Giedd of the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Giedd pointed out that Casey’s results might be outliers, noting that other studies have shown that teenagers have trouble focusing on a target when a distraction is present, for instance. The new results, however, are encouraging, Giedd concedes, because they show that impulsivity can be managed.

Is impulsiveness an insurmountable natural characteristic, or is it something that can be overcome with focus and hard work? And do you think teens have earned an unwarranted bad reputation for being reckless, especially given that the research now suggests they’re quite capable of demonstrating advanced self-control? Weigh in here.