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If you have ever had to live with teenagers, you may remember the exasperation of dealing with young brains that could appear to be quite mature and grown up one moment and horribly puerile and totally emotionally driven the next.

And yes, I do realise we were all there once as well. I think I was probably particularly challenging to my parents in my teenage years and contributed to premature hair greying and many late night discussions on “how to” effectively deal with the next problem I was causing.

The adolescent brain can be viewed almost as a separate species, but considering the number of changes it has to undergo during this period, perhaps that’s not an unreasonable approach. It is very much a work in progress.

So before you go ballistic at the next short coming – the impulsivity, the lack of compassion, the self-centredness, the lack of foresight, the reckless behaviour, of your teenager, consider this: the adolescent brain is undergoing enormous change similar to the rapid brain development experienced by very young children up until the age of four.

The adolescent brain is undergoing massive (what is called) synaptic pruning of their prefrontal cortex at a time when they are also subject to having their brains’ flooded with sex hormones. It’s a wonder their brains can function at all.

This pruning means the adolescent brain’s prefrontal cortex- their executive thinking centre, which is still very immature, actually goes into remission and shrinks massively. This is thought to be part of the process required to enable them to finally develope into thoughtful, rational and organised adults. Pruning back excessive synaptic connections makes the remaining brain far more efficient. It’s like tuning up your car’s engine so it runs more smoothly.

Our magnificent frontal lobes which provide the seat of all our executive thinking – being rational, logical, analytical, where we make our decisions, plan, set our goals, harbour our working memory and the brains’ brakes, don’t actually finish developing until our mid twenties. And yes it is true, boys are slower to mature than girls.

This week I was fortunate enough to hear Dr. Martha Burns, a well respected speech pathologist and expert in the field of neuroscience and learning, present on the latest findings and strategies for ADHD, Auditory Processing Disorder, Dyslexia and Autism. Dr Burns is a fabulous presenter able to fully engage her lay audience, whilst covering quite complex neuroscientific concepts. Impressive. Her audience were primarily teachers with a couple of health practitioners, such as yours truly and we all took away some really valuable insights.

The major outcome of the day was to empower those who work with and teach young brains, how to be most effective as smart teachers, because it is our youngest brains, that will be solving the problems of tomorrow.

From the earliest development of language where cave paintings of the horns of cattle led to the formation of what we today know as the letter A, teachers can now embrace the neuroscience of learning to help their students become better readers and as a result better interpreters of our world. As humans we have been evolving successfully for a very long time – and it looks as if we are continuing the good work.

It’s all about recognising the original purpose of our brain, which is to adapt to our environment and enable us to thrive, rather than merely survive.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, keynote speaker and best-selling author. You can now pre-order her new book ‘The Natural Advantage’ due for publication in October 2024.

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