the mysterious workings of the adolescent brain.

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?


4 thoughts on “the mysterious workings of the adolescent brain.”

  1. So glad you enjoy learning about kids’ brains as much as I do. It can seem really frightening that so much can rest with a short few years of life. All is not, however, lost. Neurogenesis (the formation of new neurons) research is being done that will hopefully help the rest of us that have some ground to make up.

    To answer your questions, I would first answer the question of ‘What do we think about risk-taking?’ Obviously, it is dependent on what behavior is associated with the risk. Knocking on a stranger’s door to sing Christmas carols, offer prayer and free child care? Looks good! Knocking on that same door after leaving rotten eggs on the doorstep? Not so much…

    The growth and maturation of the prefrontal cortex is associated with a greater ability to empathize and be aware of the thoughts and feelings of others. For me, I think that empathy, or what Dan Siegel calls ‘mindsight’, seeing into and connecting with the mind of another. Seeing the impact of actions from an outside perspective.

    If this pruning process is going on, we would be best served to increase the possibility of these momentary ‘states’ of action, into more permanent ‘traits’ of being by rewarding related thoughts, behaviors, emotions that indicate that this 13 year old student is thinking of itself in the context of a collective consciousness. More importantly, being able to see that individual thoughts, behaviors, and emotions have a direct impact on others, especially, and namely, God.

    The key, however, is to temper and present a God that is impacted by my thoughts, behaviors, and emotions, and likewise doesn’t demand obedience with an iron fist but rather longs that I would see myself as He sees me. That is where I think the identity piece fits in well. Knowing the truths of God and what He says about us is fundamentally important (and easier) when we are concrete, black-and-white thinkers. Later in brain development and in self-awareness, we run into the problem of knowing with our intellect that we are loved, cherished, and chosen and yet also being keenly aware of our personal faults, failures, mistakes, and just flat-out bad decisions. This can either put us in a position and pattern of 1) minimizing our sins, 2) thinking ourselves stuck being completely and wholly unworthy, or 3) moving beyond unworthiness and discovering gratitude.

    If we have a person that models love and acceptance, despite and in the face of, mistakes, faults, bad decisions, we can have a proper view of God and it may become easier to see ourselves as God sees us. That is why I find the account of Hagar in Genesis 16 so profound. She is SEEN completely (physically, emotionally, spiritually, cognitively, etc.) by God, finds acceptance, receives a future promise and lives as if that were true and already fulfilled. She probably didn’t feel particularly blessed at that point in her journey and yet she went back to Sarai (not yet Sarah). Other accounts in Scripture could easily be substituted for this point. Irregardless, being able to see two sides of the same coin (being a good friend and being a bad friend) and being okay with both.

    I speak well in public, except when I don’t. I follow Jesus, except when I don’t. I obey my parents, except when I don’t. This ‘both/and’ mindset is likely foreign to an ‘either/or mindset’ of an adolescent.

    Teenagers have their identity in one of three places, 1) someone else, 2) themselves (their own ideas of who they want to be, at that moment), or 3) in God. In turn, they will take direction from their source of identity.

    If I value only what my friends value, I sacrifice my will to thought well of. Risk-taking at its peak. Taken a little differently, if I value what my parents value, this can unintentionally create young adults that do ‘the right thing’ and hate every minute of it. These stances are, in some respects, positive in that children who do this likely are able to see and anticipate how their actions will affect their standing with regard to parents and/or peer groups.

    If I value my own satisfaction of every passing desire, I will likely also give into the risk-taking at my own leisure.

    Let them know that you expect them to make mistakes AND that they’ll be held accountable for them and that they will learn from them. Give opportunities to take risks in ways that honor God, e.g., how many yards can you rake without the homeowners noticing you. Let them know that taking risks are only appropriate when done to serve God.

    I don’t think that creating aspects of an attractional youth ministry is wrong. Although making that your only avenue 1) may not be sustainable, and 2) won’t make disciples, only stimulus-seeking kids.

    Teenagers could also use some education on their own brain. If they know that these changes can take place, they could have some insight (usually in the form of stories) into how best to engage them despite their growing brains.

    -the guy in the middle

  2. Could a healthy form of risk taking be ones dealing with interpersonal and intrapersonal relations? (Stretching their comfort zones as it relates to self efficacy , empathy, compassion, boundaries, for both themselves and others, etc) I know these don’t sound like the ‘standard’ forms of risk, yet think this is RIGHT where they are at and what they are looking for… ways to connect to themselves and others. Frankly, when I look at a lot of the people that I work with (incarcerated) – this is where they are severely stunted. Their environment has shown them ‘cheap’ imitations of risk/reward and their synapsis have pruned off the healthier routes. Adolescents is such a critical age. No pressure. 😉

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