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The myth of the teen brain

We blame teenage turmoil on immature brains. But did the brain cause the turmoil, or did the turmoil shape the brains?

An article by Robert Epstein explores this question in this month?s issue of Scientific American Mind. The teen brain hypothesis is based on the assertion that young people have an immature brain which causes them problems, and that they are inherently incomplete and irresponsible. Dr Epstein is concerned that we are drawing conclusions about the relationship between brain activity and thoughts, feelings and behaviour, by inferring causality from these factors to teenage turmoil. Epstein shows us evidence that if the teen brain were a universal phenomenon then we would find teen turmoil across the world ? which we don?t.  Teenage turmoil is a result of social influences rather than the cause of biology. In 1991 anthropologists in the USA studied 186 pre industrial societies ? 60% had no word for adolescent and teens spent almost all their time with adults, most showed no signs of psychopathology .  Other anthropologists have found that teen trouble begins with the introduction of western ways of living, such as TV.  According to Hugh Cunningham, from the University of Kent, is not much more than a century old.

Epstein argues that over the past century we have increasingly infantalised our young people, while isolating them from adults and passing laws to restrict their behaviour.  Epstein?s surveys show that teens in the U.S. are subjected to 10 times as many restrictions as are mainstream adults, twice as many restrictions as active duty U.S. Marines and even twice as many restrictions as incarcerated felons.  Epstein has also found that the extent to which children are infantilised positively correlates with psychopathology.

When we treat children like adults, they almost immediately rise to the challenge. Young people have extraordinary potential that is often not expressed because teenagers are treated like infants and isolated from a young age. Studies of intelligence, perception and memory show that teenagers are in many ways superior to adults in these domains.  In this article there is a call for replacing the myth of the immature brain with a ?frank look at capable and savvy teens in history, at teens in other cultures and at the truly extraordinary potential of our own young people today'  To read this article you need to subscribe to Scientific American Mind.

 
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