Thursday, December 20, 2007

    Are Teens Too Rational?

    That is the conclusion of one recent study on the teenage brain, claiming that teens overestimate the negative consequences of some behaviors but choose to engage in them anyway:
    “We found that teenagers quite rationally weigh benefits and risks,” Dr. Reyna said in a recent interview. “But when they do that, the equation delivers the message to go ahead and do that, because to the teen the benefits outweigh the risks.”
    The problem, argue the researchers, isn't that teens don't recognize the risks. It's just that they focus more on the perceived benefits:
    For example, while an adolescent might consider playing Russian roulette for a $1 million payoff, a normal adult would not give it a moment’s thought. Cutting directly to the chase, the adult would be more inclined to think: “No way! No amount of money is worth a one in six chance of dying.”
    Author Jonah Lehrer disagrees with the interpretation of the findings:

    ...I think the "teens are too rational" theory contradicts recent findings about the teenage brain. The problem for teens is that the rational circuits of the frontal cortex are actually the last to develop. (The development of the brain recapitulates its evolution, so that, in general, the brain areas that were last to evolve are the also the last to develop.) While the have fully functional emotional brains, adolescents often lack the mental muscles to hold these emotions in check. A 2006 fMRI study by neuroscientists at Cornell, for example, demonstrated that the nucleus accumbens, a brain area associated with the processing of rewards (like sex, drugs and rock n' roll), was significantly more active and mature than the prefrontal cortex, which helps us resist such temptations. In other words, teens have reckless sex and drink too much and drive dangerously because their rational brain is at a literal disadvantage. It can't argue back against their impulses.

    There is no doubt that knowledge of teen brain development can be of immense help in youth ministry, both in understanding how to nurture teens intellectually and spiritually. Conversely, those who choose not to educate themselves on this issue may be unaware that they are using programs and approaches that manipulate the still developing teenage brain. I'm convinced that this is often what is happening with youth who go to camps and large Christian teen gatherings, get whipped up into a spiritual frenzy, and then are back to their "old selves" a week later. PBS's "Frontline" recently aired an excellent documentary on the teenage brain. You can view it online here.


    jeremy zach said...

    amen!!! What a great post. WOw!! Seriously, if one is not aware of the cognitive development of the teenager brain you have a long youth ministry road ahead of you.

    Seriously, some of the questions and dialogue my high schools can have is unheard of. They are grappling with issues I never ventured into until college. A sophomore in HS can argue from a Platonic understanding in how the body and soul function. What??? Seriously? As the brain develops more comes more question to the authority and reality of Christianity.