Ashwin’s in Class 12 and stays out late most nights gaming and gets into motorcycle drag races after some beers at the local hotel with his friends. His classmates think he’s ‘cool’ and daring. But last week, the school got a call from his parents who were in tears saying that he met with a motor accident late at night after partying and that he was battling for his life in the hospital.
Many of us in our teen years want to do a lot of thrilling things like Ashwin, and try out new things and get a buzz even if it means taking risks. We may not want to take a risk but are afraid to say ‘No’ due to pressure from friends as we want to belong to our group. Remember, the feeling to take a risk is a part of growing up and quite natural until, like Ashwin, things get out of control and become life threatening. The dire consequences are not thought of in the first place. The important thing is to know that the adolescent’s brain is intensively developing from around pre-puberty time, remodeling itself up to around the mid twenties until it functions as an adult brain.
The process of remodelling begins in the back of the brain. The front part of the brain or the prefrontal cortex is the last part to get remodelled and this is the decision-making part of the brain which is responsible for our ability to plan, control urges and impulses and solve problems. Changes in this part of the brain continue into the twenties. Hence, for the teenager, the amygdala, or the part of the brain that is associated with impulses, aggression, emotions and instinctive behaviour is relied and tapped upon (more compared to in adults) to help in making those risky decisions — like ‘should I drink that fourth beer and get home late? Or do I drive past the red traffic signal and race with the car in front? Or skip the term exams and go to the movies? Or break the window in class along with some friends and feel macho? Or buy a new iPod I see at the mall which is beyond my budget?’ The high need for reward or gratification, or lack of curbing our impulse drives some of the most frustrating behaviour during the teenage years.
Hard wired: Some of these behaviours and activities including risky behaviours become ‘hard– wired’ and get embedded in our brain during the phase of adolescence — it influences the way we think, feel and act later in life. As adults, many of these individuals may continue to bring in a lot of harm to themselves (health-related problems, alcohol and other drug abuse, psychological problems, social and legal problems) including affecting others living with them.
The back to front development of the brain can often be explained by how some of our friends thinking skills and behaviours seem quite sensible and mature while at the same time others seem so weird, emotional and impulsive, defying all logic.
How do I build a healthy brain in my teenage years? What are the activities you can do that help in your brain development?
Listening to music, learning to play the keyboard, guitar or flute, or learning a new language, going trekking, sailing, or cooking. Activities like gardening, doing community work, playing chess, karate, various sports and games — the list of things that can shape your brain is endless. Importantly, these connections are strengthened as the brain can soak up new information and change — this helps the brain become more efficient later in life. Evaluate health risks and make changes — choose your friends and role models or persons you admire for their good qualities. Talking to a friend, teacher or counsellor about some of the behaviour that cause problems would help in the long run. It’s never too late to make sensible choices and shift from engaging in problematic activities.