Science Is Ready To Let You Off The Hook For The Stupid Stuff You Did As A Teen

The stereotype of teenagers doing stupid, reckless things because their brains haven’t fully developed is about as old as stupidity and recklessness. But a new review of the science behind that notion suggests impulse control may not have been at fault that time you threw a rager at your parents’ house in full view of the neighbors. Instead, the research suggests something much more innocent — admirable, even — may be to blame: the innate drive to explore, coupled with a simple lack of life experience.

For years, the accepted wisdom — backed up by science — has held that teenagers act in inexplicably risky ways because their bodies are awash in hormones while the prefrontal cortex of their brains (the part that helps you decide not borrow a police car to go joy riding) isn’t fully developed. Researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center who reviewed years of studies on teenage brains say that doesn’t hold up. It turns out, in controlled studies, teenagers tend to take fewer risks than children when they have a full understanding of what the risks are, and they exhibit only slightly less self-control than adults. In some cases teenagers actually tend to be more able to control their behavior than adults.

“What clearly peaks in adolescence is an interest in exploration and novelty seeking,” driven by rising levels of dopamine in the brain, writes Research Director Dan Romer. Rather than a flood of hormones driving wild desires and an inability to control impulses, Romer says naivety is mostly to blame for teenage recklessness. “A dispassionate review of existing research suggests that what adolescents lack is not so much the ability to control their behavior, but the wisdom that adults gain through experience,” he writes.

The upshot here is that we might take a bit more forgiving view of reckless teenage behavior — including our own. You weren’t necessarily a crazed adolescent with raging hormones acting like an insane person because your brain wasn’t developed — you were just exploring the world, which is a good thing, and learning how to be a grown-up. And as that old Neil Sedaka song goes, “growing up is hard to do.”

(via The Conversation)