You Call This Thing Adaptive? Yep: Behold the Teen Brain

Ever since the late 1990s, when researchers discovered that the human brain takes into our mid-20s to fully develop — far longer than previously thought — the teen brain has been getting a bad rap. Teens, the emerging dominant narrative insisted, were “works in progress” whose “immature brains” left them in a state “akin to mental retardation” — all titles from prominent papers or articles about this long developmental arc.

In a National Geographic feature now online to be published next week, however, I highlight a different take: A growing view among researchers that this prolonged developmental arc is less a matter of delayed development than prolonged flexibility. This account of the adolescent brain — call it the “adaptive adolescent” meme rather than the “immature brain” meme — “casts the teen less as a rough work than as an exquisitely sensitive, highly adaptive creature wired almost perfectly for the job of moving from the safety of home into the complicated world outside.” The teen brain, in short, is not dysfunctional; it’s adaptive. (See Carl Zimmer’s recent column for a rare look at this idea.)

The story, which graces the cover of the October issue, will be on newsstands by October 1, in subscriber’s mailboxes later this week or early next — and in a special iPad edition, via iTunes, this coming Thursday. Next Tuesday, September 20, at 2 pm, I’ll be discussing the story in an hour-long live segment on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, along with host Neal Conan and researchers B.J. Casey, of the Sackler Institute,  and Jay Giedd, of the National Institute of Mental Health.

You can listen live on your local NPR station, on a feed via the Talk of the Nation home page — or if you’re in DC, come and see the thing truly live at National Geographic’s Grosvenor Auditorium. (That’s free, but you’ll need to save a spot; details here). A second segment, on more conventional topics of exploration and risk, immediately follows.

Image: Kitra Cahana, National Geographic, all rights reserved

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