Friday, 14 August 2009

Rewiring the Brain

An article recently in The New Scientist identifies ten things we don't know about the human physiology. One of them is why humans go through a "teenager" phase when no other primates do. In fact, the article points out, no other mammilian species suffer the equivalent phase of development in the transition from "child" to "adult". So why do humans have to find their way through this? Why do we not transit at puberty from child to adult without the trauma of pimples, rampant hormones and sometimes decidedly unpleasant personality changes. Why do we behave to irrationally and often dangerously while making that transition when other animals don't?

Science, it seems, doesn't know. What they do know is that our brains undergo some very big changes during that phase of our growth. It seems that there is a sea change in the brain during those teenage years and this is the primary cause of the change in sleep patterns, the courting of danger or the withdrawal and surliness. It may also be what underlies the increase in risk taking and the rebellious behaviour patterns.

I found some of the research on this quite fascinating, and some of it downright tragic. It appears that during our teens our brains more or less rewire themselves and sometimes the wires get crossed, sometimes they make wrong connections and sometimes this leads to serious personality changes. It also appears that drug use during this phase of development can have truly damaging effects and prevent the individual from developing properly. Again, this really isn't properly understood and so is almost brushed under the proverbial carpet in any debate of the use or abuse of drugs. The lack of knowledge in this area is a case of perception rather than fact since there is a lot of scattered research about, but at present no interest in the political sphere (which controls access to research funding) in setting up a proper study. After all, it might produce findings which blow all the liberal drug arguments out of the water.

According to the article, which draws on some serious studies, it is this process of rewiring during our teens that makes us humans and allows us to develop the intellectual capacity we have. Without it we might be much more like our cousins the chimpanzees - limited to the mental capability of a child for life.

So I guess we should really make more of our teenage years - the person you are is rooted in your teens!


  1. This is awesome! Another reason that teen ministry is so important.

  2. Yes, it also explains why so many young people go off the rails briefly.