September 10, 2006
Adolescent Emotions Less Developed Than Adults

Dr Sarah-Jayne Blakemore of the University College London Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience has found from brain scans that when compared to adults kids from age 8 through the teen years use less of an area of the brain involved in empathy and emotional evaluation when making decisions about the reactions of themselves and others to future hypothetical situations.

Teenagers take less account than adults of people's feelings and, often, even fail to think about their own, according to a UCL neuroscientist. The results, presented at the BA Festival of Science today, show that teenagers hardly use the area of the brain that is involved in thinking about other people's emotions and thoughts, when considering a course of action.

Many areas of the brain alter dramatically during adolescence. One area in development well beyond the teenage years is the medial prefrontal cortex, a large region at the front of the brain associated with higher-level thinking, empathy, guilt and understanding other people's motivations. Scientists have now found that, when making decisions about what action to take, the medial prefrontal cortex is under-used by teenagers. Instead, a posterior area of the brain, involved in perceiving and imagining actions, takes over.

Kids are deficient in empathy and guilt because they haven't yet developed the brain areas needed to fully consider the effects of their actions on others.

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) brain scans done while adults and teenagers were asked the same questions showed a different pattern of brain activation in teenagers versus adults.

In the study, teenagers and adults were asked questions about the actions they would take in a given situation while their brains were being scanned using fMRI. For example, 'You are at the cinema and have trouble seeing the screen. Do you move to another seat?' A second set of questions asked what they would expect to happen as a result of a natural event eg. 'A huge tree comes crashing down in a forest. Does it make a loud noise?'

Although teenagers and adults chose similar responses, the medial pre-frontal cortex was significantly more active in adults than in teenagers when questioned about their intended actions. Teenagers, on the other hand, activated the posterior area of the brain known as the superior temporal sulcus – an area that's involved in predicting future actions based on past actions.

Adults can imagine emotional reactions more rapidly than teenagers can.

Participants aged eight to 36 years were asked how they would feel and how they would expect someone else to feel in a series of situations. Adults were far quicker than teenagers at judging emotional reactions – both how they would feel and how a third party might feel in a given situation. For example, "How would you feel if you were not allowed to go to your best friend's party?" or 'A girl has just had an argument with her best friend. How does she feel?"

Brains of kids undergo sharp growth spurts. Therefore the brain undergoes distinct stages of development.

"Whatever the reasons, it is clear that teenagers are dealing with, not only massive hormonal shifts, but also substantial neural changes. These changes do not happen gradually and steadily between the ages of 0–18. They come on in great spurts and puberty is one of the most dramatic developmental stages."

I'd like to see various types of criminals compared to a general adult population. Do some criminals lack fully developed medial prefrontal cortexes? Could neural growth hormones delivered in adolescence to juvenile delinquents steer them away from a life of crime?

Lack of brain maturity basically forces kids to use an area of the brain that makes simpler decisions based on a smaller number of considerations.

"The superior temporal sulcus is usually used in making simple actions, or watching other people make actions," said Dr Blakemore. "We think adolescents are performing this task by simply thinking about the action they're going to take.

"The part of the brain that the adults are using more is involved in much higher level thinking, such as thinking about the consequences of your actions in terms of other peoples' emotions and feelings."

Basically, adults run more complex models of the world that take into account more factors. They also experience feelings resulting from their internal mental simulations of the world and those feelings temper their actions.

Blakemore thinks the law should take into account differences in stages of brain development (and FuturePundit agrees).

The work has implications for the types of responsibility given to adolescents, Blakemore says: “Teenager’s brains are a work in progress and profoundly different from adults. If you’re making decisions about how to treat teenagers in terms of the law, you need to take this new research into account.”

Brains go through quite a transformation in the adolescent years. Kids are not just surly, sullen, rude, cruel, unhappy, and insensitive because they are sexually frustrated or resentful of their low status. Their ability to read the emotions in the faces of others even dips sharply starting around the age of 11. See my post Adolescence Is Tough On The Brain.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2006 September 10 01:40 PM  Brain Development


Comments
Robert Schwartz said at September 10, 2006 6:57 PM:

Raise the age of adulthood to 21, where it had been until the horrible 1960s.

Gwen said at September 15, 2006 10:16 AM:

So, if teenagers rely more on the part of the brain used to predict future actions based on past actions, while adults rely more on the part of the brain that deals with their and others' emotional reactions to potential actions, then doesn't that make teenagers more rational than adults?
It's an interesting interpretation they ended up with; if we substituted "male" for "adolescent" and "female" for "adult" the spin on it would be substantially different, I expect. ("...And that's why women, in general, make decisions based more on emotions, while men generally make them based on non-emotional effects." And then depending on the bias of the reporter, that would end up being either that women worry about whose feelings would be hurt or that that's why women are more emotionally sensitive while men act like insensitive jerks.)
So when adults make a decision like "should I accept Ted's invitation to try cocaine?" (or "Ted's drunk; should I take his keys or should I let him drive?") their response is more likely to be based on whether it'll hurt Ted's feelings to turn the invitation down, while teenagers consider what the non-emotionally-related consequences of their actions will be. Yes, I think that that should have a significant impact on how laws relating to adolescence are made.

Mark said at November 10, 2006 10:53 AM:

One can either respond reactively - or proactively.
The reactive response probably won't get one very far. To raise the official participation in adult activities to a different age, e.g. 21 would be very difficult. Which adult activities would be selected? Signing contracts (e.g. buying a car)? Drinking alcohol? Getting married? Joining the armed forces? Raising a child (e.g. teen parents)?

My personal and work experience tells me that there's a great deal of variation in capacity for making wise decisions about how one gets on in society, gets along in relationships. And it doesn't directly link with academic performance (IQ). Gender, birth order, life experiences, seem to impact the development of this abstract thinking capacity. My kids (four of them, now 16 - 22 years) report that socio-economic status (higher wealth, actually) and single children often present as delayed in these skills - hey, just passing on observations....So, using the single measure of age may not be very effective.

Plus, I'm doubting if few current adults would suggest that they should have lived a more restrictive life.

So, perhaps we should build on this interesting research in a slightly different direction? First, simply and directly promote the skill. I'd suggest more direct information to the youth that their brains are still developing. And, secondly, work on interventions or activities that promote these skills - and perhaps downplaying activities that are self-centered or don't engage a youth in thinking about the needs/perspectives of others.

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