“Development is progressive inhibition,” says Dr. John Mazziota, a UCLA neurologist, referring to the teen years. Teens are learning to inhibit their impulses—but they aren’t yet very adept. The result is the typical troubling behavior we see in adolescents: impulsiveness, mood swings, lack of self-control, and poor judgment. We see this exemplified in teens that participate in so-called high risk, dangerous behaviors such as drinking, smoking, and drug use.
A recent article in Scientific American discusses some noteworthy new findings about the brains of such “high-risk” teens: they begin to form myelin sooner than other teen brains. Simply put, myelin is the outer sheath that covers neurons in the brain. This sheath increases the speed and efficiency of brain activity. Once formed, myelin reduces the plasticity of the brain. The fact that myelin is most abundant in adult brains led the article to state that risk-taking teens possess brains more like those of mature adults.
The article’s conclusion, while logical, seems to me to be truncated. In reflecting on the study’s ramifications, I am inclined to believe that the teens in the study are more prone to taking risks because they possess the gas pedal (myelin) but lack the brakes to inhibit their impulses. Parts of the brain, such as the amygdala, are essential to helping us apply the brakes. These parts are not fully developed in teens. Think of rerouting an interstate through the heart of a metropolitan city and you’ll have an accurate depiction of what the researchers are observing.
These findings also beg the question: From whence does this early onset of myelination stem? The article doesn’t answer, but I can’t help speculating. I suspect myelination in these teens is a self-protective response to adverse experiences—trauma, neglect, abuse, loss. These teens may have had age-inappropriate experiences that forced them to grow up too soon. The pathways they develop for survival are more efficient, but they are also out of sync with the rest of the brain and their overall development.
This research ought to motivate us to help kids and teens grow and develop at a cadence that’s in keeping with natural development. We should treat childhood and adolescence like a wildlife sanctuary. We go, we sit, we watch and delight in what we see. We protect and nurture, rather than endanger. Animals within sanctuaries deserve to exist and relate to themselves and their environment without fear. The same ought to be true for youth. Their preoccupation ought to be how to thrive, not how to merely survive.