The teen brain is wired for kindness

July 31, 2018

Karissa Bailor is an incoming freshman at Northwest Christian University

Kate Mills is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Oregon and a member of the Center for Digital Mental Health. She researches the intertwined social, biological, and cognitive processes that underlie the development of social navigational skills.

Teenagers are often portrayed as self-centered and obsessed with fitting in with their peers. But the tasks of adolescence – the period between puberty and assuming a relatively stable role in society – are many. Many teenagers are tasked to juggle classwork with employment or extracurricular activities while they’re simultaneously expected to figure out how to form and maintain relationships of all kinds: family, friends, and romantic partners.

Fortunately, the teen brain is perfectly prepared to tackle these challenges. The ability to multitask and take other’s perspectives increases during adolescence. Having a malleable brain during adolescence is arguably adaptive for learning how to balance increasingly complex social lives. And teenager’s heightened sensitivity to social cues and increasing ability to integrate knowledge could even mean that teenagers learn higher level cultural rules with greater ease than children or adults. In contrast to commonly held stereotypes, teenagers are actually amazing for being able to take in all the new perspectives that come with growing into adults ready to take on the world. But teenagers can experience difficulties in learning how to process all this new information and balancing a social life and school work with whatever else one chooses to do with the little extra free time leftover.

Research using brain imaging techniques have demonstrated that the brain’s structure and function are changing in dramatic ways during adolescence. Grey matter in the outer rim of the brain (called the cortex), where many brain cells and their connections are located, is actually decreasing substantially in several areas of the brain. But decreasing grey matter is not thought to be a bad thing – it’s actually an adaptive process that can help the brain eventually become more specialized.

In the same way that a rose bush is pruned so that the stronger branches can thrive, the connections between brain cells that are most used are kept and the weaker connections disappear.

While the grey matter is decreasing, the white matter of the brain, which consists of the large insulated fibers that connect together different parts of the brain, is increasing in size during adolescence. Because these changes in the brain can be impacted by the environment and behavior, teenagers have the ability to impact their brain’s developmental trajectory in a way that children and adults cannot. While children’s brains are still malleable, they typically don’t have the same level of agency as teenagers; and while adults have more agency than teenagers, their brain’s are not as malleable as the teen brain.

This adaptability is one big aspect of the brain during the teenage years. Another aspect relates to the functionality of the brain during this time. Areas of the brain involved in motivation and learning are more active than in childhood and adulthood during social contexts. Social contexts are very salient and teenagers are rightfully motivated to learn about social norms as well as about the specific people they are forming relationships with. Previous research has focused on this sensitivity as it relates to behaviors such as risk taking and impulsive decision making, but more recent research has demonstrated that this sensitivity to social cues and heightened motivation can also promote prosocial behavior! Research from labs all over the world are starting to investigate just how the teenage brain might be wired for kindness and prosociality.

Research conducted by Dr. Jorien van Hoorn and colleagues has demonstrated that teens are more likely to engage in prosocial sharing behavior after experiencing prosocial feedback from peers. Dr. van Hoorn’s research has also shown that areas of the brain that are more sensitive to peer influences are also involved in decision to donate, which might be one reason why increased social sensitivity in adolescence is related to greater opportunities to engage in prosocial behavior. This research suggests that prosocial acts can spread like wildfire within teenage social networks, as modern examples such as the Ice Bucket Challenge can demonstrate.

Thinking about how these changes may impact the way students interact with educational environments is also important – considering these environments are often just as social as they are learning–oriented. However, the current school environment could use some improvements as most schools do not have the necessary support needed to help teenagers. Maintaining a social life in high school can be difficult for some because of the pressures of increased workload, including extracurricular activities and jobs, and also familial expectations. Trying to make friends and maintaining those relationships require a lot of time and care, as do romantic relationships. School environments that value and address the increased complexity of relationships during middle and high school could experience reverberating positive effects from the kindness inherent in teenagers.