What's Right With the Teenage Mind?

Earlier this year, Berkeley psychologist Alison Gopnik published an essay entitled, “What’s Wrong With the Teenage Mind?” in the Wall Street Journal.  It was a very interesting piece—and one that got all the parents in my circle talking, both about their kids and their own crazy teenage choices.  We may have tried to one-up each other a bit—in both categories.


In the piece, Gopnik argues that much of the seemingly inexplicable adolescent behavior observed in today’s teens (that far too often result in long-term detrimental consequences) may be due to a simple disconnect between two key brain circuits:  one circuit responsible for regulating motivation and emotion systems and a second circuit that facilitates decision-making and behavioral control.  She suggests that since teens are hitting puberty earlier, and staying in the nest longer, they may simply lack the hands-on experience to get these two key circuits in sync.  She writes:

Brain research is often taken to mean that adolescents are really just defective adults—grown-ups with a missing part. Public policy debates about teenagers thus often turn on the question of when, exactly, certain areas of the brain develop, and so at what age children should be allowed to drive or marry or vote—or be held fully responsible for crimes. But the new view of the adolescent brain isn't that the prefrontal lobes just fail to show up; it's that they aren't properly instructed and exercised.

It’s an interesting idea, and certainly one with merit.  But the title rubbed me the wrong way a bit.  Despite the fact that I’d like to forget quite a bit of my own adolescence—and joked that I might see some benefit to shipping my son off to boarding school once he hits his—I don’t like the negative connotation that we’ve attached to adolescence, this pervasive notion that something is wrong or bad, that we have to somehow fix the brain to be more adult.

In fact, recent research in both animal models and human populations has led me to wonder if we shouldn’t be more focused on what the teen brain does right.  Perhaps the solutions to widespread problems like teenage pregnancy, substance abuse and dangerous risk-taking could be tempered by tapping into the benefits of something that remains, at the time of adolescence, rather unfixed. 

Because there is a lot about the teenage brain that is right. Abigail Baird, a neuroscientist from Vassar College, has been doing a lot of fascinating work on the teen brain.  And she likens adolescence to a sort of second toddlerhood.  Forget the terrible twos, she says.  Parents and policymakers should be focusing a lot more on the terrible twelves.

When she first mentioned a second toddlerhood, I laughed.  But the toddler years are a sensitive period where an awful lot of amazing things happen in the brain in order for babies to make the transformation into children.  Those years can be awkward and rife with tantrums but they are also a period of incredible learning.  Look closely and you’ll see something very similar in adolescents.  Tantrums?  Check.  Boundary pushing?  Check.  Hyperbole?  Check.  A “me me me” mentality?  Oh, yeah.  But there is also this amazing ability to learn.  “If you want to learn that second language or learn the skills to become that super-star jock, adolescence is the time to do it,” says Baird.  “Everything is just exploding neurally and there is an amazing amount of learning that takes place.  Just like toddlers are making that leap, learning all they need to go from babyhood to childhood, teens are learning an immense amount so they can become adults.”

Studies both out of Baird’s lab and others suggest that those out-of-control emotions and bewildering motivations that so many parents wish they could quash are actually important to all that critical pre-adult learning.  “The teen years require a lot of trial and error,” Baird argues.  “If everything wasn’t so dramatic and important and emotional, adolescents wouldn’t have the motivation they need to get back up and do it again when they fail.  And if they are going to gain the experience they need to learn how to make good decisions, they have to get back up and do it again.  And again.  And again.”

Perhaps understanding why those moods and motivations  so important can help parents better weather all of their related storms.  Baird suggests that the terrible twelves are just as sensitive as the terrible twos—and it pays to parent just as thoroughly as one does with a toddler.   She recommends, to start, allowing kids to explore with scaffolding, reducing teen class sizes in school and accepting that mistakes are going to be made.  “I think that if there is any take-home message from my work and the work that a lot of folks are doing is that the teenage years aren’t all about storm and stress—there really is an opportunity to help kids grow into great adults,” says Baird.  “It’s something that requires structure and parenting but adolescence, ultimately, is a great thing from a cognitive and brain perspective.”

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.