The Appeal of Anarchy

A psychoanalysis of the teenage brain

Adolescence is a difficult time for many individuals. Adolescents are often seen as rude, moody, disrespectful, inexperienced and having a lack of knowledge. They are constantly looked down upon by older and more experienced members of society. This can be difficult for many adolescents, as they also find themselves struggling internally with self consciousness, poor impulse control and heightened risk-taking behaviors, all of which are continually pointed out and ridiculed by others. Rather than seeing these as negative attributes, we should see them for what they truly are; a reflection of the growth and development of the adolescent brain.

The main function of adolescence is to develop a sense of self and to prepare for life without the constant support of a caregiver. In today’s modern society, this is usually seen in the form of parental guidance. Adolescence is a time when humans begin to detach from their caregivers. The human family evolved during prehistoric times to be dependent on alloparenting, or the “collaborative parenting of a selected few individuals within the community,” (Daniel Siegel). This is a trait that is found almost exclusively in humans. It is what gave us the ability to become such a “collaborative and adaptive species,”(Daniel Siegel). Although this trait is a fundamental component of human nature, it gets easily dismissed in the modern society. The absence of alloparenting can have negative effects on the developing brain. From the beginning of life the importance of collaboration, a crucial component of the human experience, is pushed aside. Instead, of valuing collaboration, becoming the best as an individual is emphasized. Adolescents are told to get the best grades so they can get into the best university and get prestigious jobs. To do this, they are expected to “beat out” their peers. This creates a competitive mentality, when really what the developing brain needs is an environment that supports collaboration. This collaborative mentality is a crucial component to the developing brain of adolescents. As adolescents change the focus of their attachment needs, they turn towards their peers, and away from their parents or caregivers. Their collaboration skills are a crucial element that must be applied as they develop their sense of self and to become independent members of society.

As adolescents try to assert themselves as competent and independent members of society, they many times find themselves battling with their identity and their place in the world. This is often an anxious and emotional time of their lives. As the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with emotions (particularly fear), develops, adolescents tend to have much higher levels of anxiety, generally associated with social interactions. Deborah Todd-Yurgelun, PhD, of Harvard University’s McLean Hospital Cognitive Neuroimaging and Neuropsychology Laboratory and her team “showed 16 adolescents fearful or happy faces while scanning their brains in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. They found that increased amygdala activity during the presentation of fearful faces related to higher social anxiety scores, but not with other aspects of anxiety. This finding suggests that adolescents and adults tend to attribute anxiety to different causes, says Yurgelun-Todd,”(American Psychological Association). Adults tend to become anxious about marital issues, financial strains and stressful workplace situations. Conversely, as previously stated, adolescents tend to have anxiety about social interactions mainly with their peers and the way they see themselves.

Another reason that adolescents struggle with sense of self is that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain in charge of cognitive processes such as reasoning, planning and behavior control is still under development. Another study conducted by Deborah Todd-Yurgelun suggests that abstract reasoning skills increase along with social anxiety. “Part of abstract reasoning includes being able to take an observer perspective on one’s self and to make inferences about other people’s thoughts and feelings. Although the emergence of abstract reasoning is ultimately a useful tool that allows adults to self regulate, in adolescence, it might contribute to higher vulnerability to social anxiety and other emotional disorders”, says Isabelle Rosso, PhD who works with Todd-Yurgelun (American Psychological Association). As adolescents transition into adults, cognitive control is strengthened. Adolescents slowly gain more and more ability to think abstractly and see themselves in the way others see them. Although this is a strength, this abstract view of self causes great social anxiety. Adolescents become less anxious about social interactions as their prefrontal cortex continues to develop. They need understanding, patience and support from those surrounding them. With time and support their unbalanced sense of self become strengthened and solidified.

Cognitive neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore compares the prefrontal cortex in adolescents to that of adults, to show us how typically “teenage” behavior is caused by the growing and developing brain

In addition, adolescents are known to have poor impulse control. They take risks that can otherwise be seen as irresponsible and thoughtless. The ability to recognize consequences to actions, an essential component of the human condition, is limited in adolescents due to the development of their complex reasoning skills. The thinking process becomes much more logical, abstract and idealistic as humans mature (Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Dartmouth College). Humans become very good at reasoning regarding experiences that have previously been encountered. Adolescents’ brains, however, still have many refinements to make to the myelin, a “fatty substance that increases the speed with which signals can travel in the brain” (The Royal Society, Dartmouth College). In other words, adolescents’ brains have trouble generating potential alternative outcomes of behavior. They cannot easily conceive possible consequences to their actions and the actions of others. Although this has the potential to be seen as negative, evolutionarily speaking, it is one of the greatest attributes of adolescence. It gives individuals confidence they might not otherwise have to pursue behaviors that have greater risk. This can be very beneficial, as adolescence is a time to gain a sense of self. Risk-taking behavior can help adolescents make precarious yet rewarding decisions regarding their futures.

There is a purpose to all of the uncertainty and instability of adolescents’ cognitive function and identity. The main function of adolescence is to establish independence and to prepare for adulthood. The self consciousness, poor impulse control and risk-taking behavior in adolescents is very beneficial to the development of them as individuals. It is a period where the brain’s structure is not yet fully developed and has the ability to change and adapt depending on it’s environment. This prepares them for life, as nothing is certain and everything can change quickly. Adolescence is not a problem worthy of disgrace, but rather, an excellent opportunity for enhancing the brain’s capabilities through experience and education.

Works Cited