i just discovered this TED talk from back in september on adolescent brain development. as with most conversations surrounding the teenage brain, we’re talking specifically about the pre-frontal cortex: things like decision making, planning, inhibiting inappropriate behavior, social interaction, self awareness…you know, all the areas where middle schoolers really stink.
here are some interesting thoughts (well, at least i think they’re interesting) i was left with after watching this TED talk, and what they specifically say about youth ministry…
there is a significant decline in grey matter in the pre-frontal cortex following the peak of adolescence. this means that at the height of adolescence, there are more cell bodies and more synaptic connections between cells, but as we age and move past adolescence, our brain begins to eliminate the synapses that aren’t being used, and strengthens the synapses that are being used. the environment that young people are surrounded by dictates what parts of their brain are strong, and what parts are weak.
the limbic system is hyper-sensitive in adolescents compared to in adults. the limbic system is deep within the brain, and it is connected with emotional processing. the limbic system is what gives us the rewarding feeling that comes with taking risks. this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, but middle schoolers are more likely to make stupid decisions, and this limbic business is an obvious connection to that fact. previously, i have always attributed this to a lack of forethought because of their under-developed pre-frontal cortex, but apparently their brain is running double duty.
so what does that mean for youth ministry? first, in regards to this grey matter business, it means that if students do not experience Christian community, missional living and an identity found in Jesus Christ during adolescence, their ability to access these things into adulthood is supremely diminished. therefore, it is important that we expose our young people to environments in which they can experience these things during their adolescent years.
and in regards to this limbic system stuff…if a middle schooler’s brain is encouraging them to take more risks, is it important that we partner with this instinct somehow? or would that be taking advantage of their hyper-sensitivity by creating an attractional youth ministry model? how can youth ministry engage the risk-taking limbic system in healthy ways? more questions than answers here, but i wonder what risks we are taking that aid in the spiritual formation of our teenagers?