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Could life’s challenges build resilience in the adolescent brain?

The remarkable adolescent brain is creative and adaptive, but could it be reckless at times?

The remarkable brain of the teenager

One in six 5 to 16-year-olds have a probable mental health condition, according to NHS research conducted in 2020. This has increased from one in nine back in 2017. 

It’s no wonder mental health problems are at an all-time high. With inside isolation, friends confined to a phone and the school day shrunken down into lessons on a computer screen, the last couple of years have thrown hurdles at today’s youth that haven’t been seen on an equivalent scale for generations. 

Brains bouncing back

Our brains take longer to develop than any other organ, and that means they are able to adapt. As a species, we evolved to different environments, from the desert to grasslands, and we’ve continued to do so as we’ve created our own man-made environments. Whether it might be to live in a city or a space station, our brains have evolved to become malleable.

Teenagers have more brain cells than adults do. Their brains are quicker. Not only does that mean they can bounce back from things quicker, if you think teenagers seem more imaginative and creative than adults, then you’d be correct. From learning Japanese, to trying out rollerblading, to picking up graphic design, teenagers’ remarkable brains are wired so they can adapt to new things and gain more skills easily.                                                                               

With more synapses, teenagers have better memories, and they can make more connections between things. Even into adulthood, adults above the age of forty tend to say the memories that are the most vivid tend to be from their teenage years. This phenomenon is known as the “reminiscence bump”. 

Right to be reckless? 

Yet the teenage brain also has differences from the adult brain that make them less suited to the pressures of their adolescent years. Teenagers are often perceived as reckless, or as having addictive personalities. But these characteristics are actually down to their brain. The limbic system is the part of the brain involved in taking risks, and it has more connections in teenagers. They also don’t have a fully developed prefrontal cortex which handles decision making, so making reckless decisions and giving into peer pressure is more common.

The way a teenage brain works might seem confusing to adults sometimes, but it is truly remarkable.  Because their brains aren’t fully formed, the level-headedness and maturity that comes with adulthood hasn’t developed yet. Teenagers tend to live in the moment more, which can certainly come with ups and downs, but it can inject joy into daily routines. When teenage brains are scientifically different, they are bound to experience life differently.

Discover more about ‘weird but wonderful’ teenage brains from our partner The Day.