If you’ve ever taught middle school or high school, or raised a teenager – or, for that matter, been a teenager, these quotes will explain the sometimes-frustrating, sometimes-inspiring, often-perplexing behavior of teens and pre-teens. The quotes are from Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, by Robert Sapolsky. I’ve taken inspiration from this book for both teacher trainings and writing workshops, and my best description for it is this: It is the most thorough and well-written explanation of every human behavior you can imagine. It’s the length of two books, but offers the value of about five books.
The quotes below are a sample of Robert Sapolsky’s scientific explanations for teenage behavior.
Many of them are from a chapter entitled “Adolescence; or Dude, Where’s My Frontal Cortex?”
And they manage to make teenage behavior seem downright poetic, which is saying a lot.
“First, no part of the adult brain is more shaped by adolescence than the frontal cortex. Second, nothing about adolescence can be understood outside the context of delayed frontocortical maturation.”
“….overview of the frontal cortex; the mantra is that it makes you do the harder thing when that is the right thing.”
“Because it is the last to mature, by definition the frontal cortex is the brain region least constrained by genes and most sculpted by experience….Ironically, it seems that the genetic program of human brain development has evolved to, as much as possible, free the frontal cortex from genes.”
“Older teenagers experience emotions more intensely than do children or adults, something obvious to anyone who ever spent time as a teenager.”
“Neuroimaging studies show the dramatic sensitivity of adolescents to peers. Ask adults to think about what they imagine others think of them, then about what they think of themselves. Two different, partially overlapping networks of frontal and limbic structures activate for the two tasks. But with adolescents the two profiles are the same. “What do you think about yourself?” is neurally answered with “Whatever everyone else thinks about me.*””
“Novelty craving permeates adolescence; it is when we usually develop our stable tastes in music, food, and fashion, with openness to novelty declining thereafter.”
“(Brain imaging) suggests that in adolescents strong rewards produce exaggerated dopaminergic signaling, and nice sensible rewards for prudent actions feel lousy.”
“We’ve just explained why adolescents are so frustrating, great, asinine, impulsive, inspiring, destructive, self- destructive, selfless, selfish, impossible, and world changing.”
“Think about this—adolescence and early adulthood are the times when someone is most likely to kill, be killed, leave home forever, invent an art form, help overthrow a dictator, ethnically cleanse a village, devote themselves to the needy, become addicted, marry outside their group, transform physics, have hideous fashion taste, break their neck recreationally, commit their life to God, mug an old lady, or be convinced that all of history has converged to make this moment the most consequential, the most fraught with peril and promise, the most demanding that they get involved and make a difference. In other words, it’s the time of life of maximal risk taking, novelty seeking, and affiliation with peers. All because of that immature frontal cortex.”
- *Guyer AE, Lau JYF, McClure-Tone EB, Parrish J, Shiffrin ND, Reynolds RC, Chen G, Blair RJR, Leibenluft E, Fox NA, Ernst M, Pine DS, Nelson EE.
- Amygdala and Ventrolateral Prefrontal Cortex Function During Anticipated Peer Evaluation in Pediatric Social Anxiety. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2008;65(11):1303–1312. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.65.11.1303; Guyer, A. E., McClure-Tone, E. B., Shiffrin, N. D., Pine, D. S. and Nelson, E. E. (2009),
- Probing the Neural Correlates of Anticipated Peer Evaluation in Adolescence. Child Development, 80: 1000–1015. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2009.01313.x; (2010)
- Do you like me? Neural correlates of social evaluation and developmental trajectories, Social Neuroscience, 5:5-6, 461-482, DOI: 10.1080/17470910903526155