OP-ED: The Teenage Brain, New Science or the Same Old Prejudice?

Mike Males

Mike Males

“As any parent knows,“ youths display “immature and irresponsible behavior… adolescent brains are not yet fully mature in regions and systems related to higher-order executive functions such as impulse control, planning ahead, and risk avoidance.” Those phrases are the most eagerly quoted of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roper v. Simmons and Miller v. Alabama decisions on juvenile life/death sentencing.

We “know” teenagers act stupidly… compared to some ideal standard. But compared to us? Grownups’ boasting aside, does scientific evidence — brain research, cognitive studies, psychometric testing, statistics — show we act any better?

Hardly. Grownups in this country are stunningly reckless. High rates of drug overdose, gun violence, suicide, family abuses, family breakup, and 3 million criminal arrests per year among Americans ages 40-59 evidence serious “middle-aged risk taking.” The aging brain’s deteriorated memory, learning and cognitive functioning is a worrisome “developmental issue.”

But we don’t talk about that “brain research,” or the primitive state of the science. “People naturally want to use brain science to inform policy and practice, but our limited knowledge of the brain places extreme limits on that effort,” warned Kurt Fischer director of the Mind, Brain, & Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

We are just beginning to identify how systems in the brain work together in an integrated fashion to create complex mental processes,” agreed UCLA's Center for Culture, Brain, and Development director Daniel Siegel. Researchers “couldn’t really find any link between brain development and adolescent risk-taking,” declared a lead author in Scientific American; interestingly, more adult-like brains predicted riskier behavior.

Small-scale Functional Magnetic Resonance Imagings shows that under some (but not all) conditions, adolescents process new information somewhat more through the amygdala, while adults use the pre-frontal cortex more. These findings are viewed cautiously by research scientists, who acknowledge that these remain poorly understood brain regions.

What today’s best evidence shows, educator Howard Sercombe and neuroscientist Tomas Paus’ stricter investigations of brain functionalities across the lifespan report, is not risk versus prudence or stupidity versus maturity, but flexibility versus specialization. The young brain’s abundance of open neuropathways facilitates greater adaptability to changing conditions; older adults’ pruned pathways promote more efficient responses to narrower situations. Both are complex products of individuality and environment.

But scientific uncertainties and complexities be damned. Irresponsible interest groups, commentators, and popular media deploy selective, often inconsistent, caricatures of “brain research” to push their agendas. For progressives, “teen brain” arguments have proven most useful for winning leniency for the few youths who commit heinous violence while arbitrarily punishing and restricting millions who don’t.

But would liberals who cheered the U.S. Supreme Court’s citation of teenage brainlessness in juvenile sentencing decisions want the same logic applied to upholding stop-and-frisk laws and contraception bans? Would middle-agers accept “deteriorated-aging-brain” stigmas and severely curtailed rights for ourselves to spare a few 50-aged murderers?

The Supreme Court’s dubious bio-developmental quips obscured its far more important findings regarding the systemic abrogation of rights juveniles suffer. Laws afford juveniles only “limited control over their own environment” and “ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings,” justices noted. Courts routinely deny juvenile defendants basic rights. When imposing ultimate sentences, states cannot arbitrarily restrict youths like children when convenient, then hold youths responsible like adults when convenient.

The popular stampede to embrace “teenage brain” dogmas has been extraordinarily heedless of the dismal history of biodeterminist and phrenological non-science. Professional, academic, and political authorities of the past universally agreed that compared to white, Anglo-Saxon men, “inferior” races and nationalities were naturally violent, impulsive, unreasoning, and criminal (exactly the disparagements now hurled at teenagers). Scientific imperatives to rule out external conditions before championing internal biologies were dismissed — then, as now.

Just like racial out-groups, teenagers as an age and within every race and locality suffer poverty levels twice as high as middle-agers. Our initial studies at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, described in a previous column, found that what we call “adolescent risk taking” and “teenage crime proneness” are not features of youthful brains or development; they result from adolescents’ lower socioeconomic status.

Ultimately, those concerned with youths’ well-being should consider the overarching rule: however expedient playing the biology card might seem in immediate cases, the larger, long-term reality is that this nation punishes “inferiors.” Liberals claim to “protect” teenagers, yet their policies contribute to harsher policing, arrest and incarcerations imposed on youths than adults suffer for equivalent behaviors. There is no “ideal brain.” Like adults, youths benefit from individualized, not prejudiced, justice.

3 thoughts on “OP-ED: The Teenage Brain, New Science or the Same Old Prejudice?

  1. Thanks for another great piece! I am curious if data exists either from a time when adolescence wasn’t so entrenched in our culture (before child labor laws for example) and the assumptions about youth weren’t so strong or from other nations / cultures that don’t have that kind of separation.

  2. There is some research (Enright, Levy et al, 1987) showing that journal articles tend to depict youth as mature and capable when they’re needed for low-level employment or wartime service, and as childlike and incompetent when officials are trying to restrict youth employment and are not needed for war. Pretty cynical stuff.

    For those who insist in worshipful reverence that “the science” of brain imagings demonstrates adolescent risk taking, take a look a this Dartmouth neuroscientist’s rigorous lab finding that a DEAD SALMON shown pictures of humans in social interaction situations (a standard method for studying teenagers) yielded POSITIVE results consistent with “actually thinking”–a result Science magazine called “completely nuts”. See:
    http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/09/fmrisalmon/

    Using fmri findings at this primitive level to broadcast definitive findings about the “teenage brain” is no better than the 19th century phrenology ridiculed by Stephen Jay Gould. I wonder if the Macarthur Foundation, NIH, and major media will now do major splashes on “dead salmon brain science–what it teaches us about teenagers.”