Do they have one? Most definitely! Do they always use it effectively? Not, not always, but then sometimes neither do adults, and at least teenagers have the excuse that their brain is still developing!
I love the brain. I know that sounds slightly weird but bear with me, because it’s fascinating…well, I think it is anyway. Especially when we look at how it develops. I wonder if that makes me an encephalon geek? Anyway, given there is still so much we don’t know about the brain (funny how people don’t really want their head messed with when they’re still alive), what do we know?
One of the important things to know about the brain is that it doesn’t stop developing until we’re in our mid-twenties. Before that, there’s so much growth and pruning going on, it’s a wonder we don’t all go through adolescence with massive headaches.
The last part of the brain to develop is the pre-frontal cortex, which is the area just behind our forehead. This is the rational, decision making part of the brain – the part that organises thoughts, considers options and consequences, delays gratification and suppresses sudden impulses. So…the grown up part of the brain! This really starts developing in mid-teens but it takes quite a few years to get it working well. And before it does, kids and teenagers (and even adults sometimes!) use a little part of the brain called the amygdala for a lot of their emotional thinking. This is a small part of the brain about the size and shape of an almond and it is the emotional and instinctual part of the brain.
Okay, hands up whose heard of the flight or fight response before? You know that thing that kicks in when a whopping great dog barks at you and you get an adrenalin rush? That’s brought to you by the amygdala. And even if a teenager’s pre-frontal cortex is developing and they seem to be getting good at it, as soon as they’re in a state of high emotional arousal – fear, anger, excitement, lust…you get the idea! – then there is a pretty good chance that their amygdala is going to step in and influence their decisions. And when you mix this in with peer relationships and raging hormones – well, you are probably going to get some interesting reactions and choices being made.
So, when you’re reading a book with teenage characters, remember that sometimes the more ‘interesting’ decisions they make are probably because they’re reacting with their amygdala. And that’s perfectly normal!