Insight Into the Teenage Brain: Adriana Galván at [email protected]


Hi, thank you. I love, love, love your enthusiasm. Your energy and excitement
is really what makes me love my job, and my job is to study
the adolescent brain. I’m a scientist at UCLA, as Jake said. So scientists have studied
the brain for centuries, but it’s only been
in the last 15 years or so that we’ve discovered
one of the most fascinating things, and that is that your brain
changes every single day. As you sit in this room, your brain is changing
in response to my voice, in response to the person next to you, and your experiences
and the people you affiliate with shape the way
your brain ultimately develops. We also know that the brain matures and continues to do so
past childhood and into the teenage years and well into your mid-20s. So most of you in this room today, as middle and high school students, don’t yet have a fully mature brain. But this is actually really beneficial, if we think about
one of the functions of adolescence, which is to establish your independence
from a caregiver, because your brain as an adolescent is built to help you do that. Compared to children and adults, the teenage brain is really good
at seeking out new experiences enjoying thrills
and seeking out risks. It’s also really good
at recognizing social or being sensitive to social
and emotional information. And so for that reason, the teenage brain is really responsive
to rewards and emotions when making decisions. And in my laboratory at UCLA,
and in laboratories all around the world, we’re interested in uncovering
that very question: How does a teenage brain make decisions? One of the first discoveries
relevant to this topic was made when we discovered that the part of your brain
in the very front, called the prefrontal cortex, which is the last brain region to develop, because your brain develops
from the back to the front, continues to change up until the mid-20s. And the reason this is relevant is because the prefrontal cortex
is a part of your brain that helps you think
about the consequences or potential consequences of your actions before you do them. It helps you regulate
your behavior and your emotions. And so it makes sense that
if this part of the brain isn’t fully available
until well past adolescence, then teenagers may make
more impulsive decisions with less regard
for the potential future consequences. But we now know that the stories are far more interesting
and complicated than that. And in fact, what we really need to do is think about how brain regions
that are not at the surface of your brain, but in the deeper layers, how they change. And one region we focus on
is called the striatum. And the striatum is the key component
of the reward system. So when you receive something
that you find rewarding, your striatum is very responsive and it releases something called dopamine. And this is the case not just in humans, but in kids, in mice, in rats, in monkeys. All of these organisms respond really with a lot of excitement
in their brain when they get something they like. So in my lab, we study this reward system
across development, especially in teenagers. And we do that by asking people
to come to the laboratory and perform what is called a Functional Magnetic
Resonance Imaging Scan, or fMRI And the beauty of fMRI is that you can take
a snapshot of the brain in motion. So while you are experiencing
something you like, or while you are making a decision, we capture how your brain
is responding to that, how your brain is active. And so, to study the reward system, what we did is not simply
show people pictures of reward, which is what mostly happens
in brain imaging studies, but instead what we did
is we actually gave someone a reward and what’s something
that people find rewarding? Sugar. So what we did is
we asked people to come to the lab, we asked a group of teenagers
and a group of adults, and, while they were in the MRI,
we hooked them up to a straw and we fed them
squirts of sugar water ever so often. And first we asked them
whether they liked it. Maybe they weren’t going to like
the sugar as much as we thought. But they actually did. This is the rating scale asking them,
“How much do you like the sugar?” And the average response is in red
for the teenage group and the adults is shown in white, and you can see that everybody liked it, but it’s the teenage group that showed
this exaggerated sensitivity. They really liked it. So we started to wonder whether
there was something neurobiological that represented this difference. So, instead of focusing
on the prefrontal cortex, which is what a lot of brain scientists
who study adolescents do, we looked at the deeper
layers of the brain. So in this image, which is actually
a real human brain image averaged together
among all our participants, we saw that, in the deeper layers, here represented
with this yellow activation, the striatum was really excited
to the sugar water, and this was across all age groups. But the really cool thing was observed when we looked at the differences
between the teenagers and the adults. Here again I’m showing you
the magnitude of activation, that is, how excitable the brain was, in the teenagers compared to the adults, to this very simple reward of sugar. And you can see that the teenagers
were much more excited to the same exact stimulus, and in the same exact region of the brain, it’s the teenage brain
that was going crazy. It was really excited to get it. And when we associated that
with their ratings of the sugar, it was only in the teenage group where we saw that people who showed greater activation in the brain in response to the sugar also told us they liked it more. So that means that, in real time, at that very moment your brain
gets something that it likes, it will make you think that it’s better. And you can think or imagine
that, in future circumstances, your brain will encode that information
and remember that you liked it, so it will bias your decisions
toward getting more rewards, and that’s what happens
during adolescence. But to ensure that
this wasn’t just specific to something as simple as sugar, we gave people something else
that everybody likes and we did this
while they were in the MRI. And what’s something else
that everyone loves to get? (Audience) Money!
AG: Money. Right? Everybody likes money. So, we brought in a whole
separate group of teenagers and adults, and this time we threw
a group of kids in there, who were between about 7 and 10, and we found that, again, the part of the brain
that was most responsive was the striatum, shown here on the left. This is a brain scan
showing the average activation. But what you can see really clearly is that not only were the teenagers more reactive to the money
than the adults, which you might argue is because maybe they have
less of it, they like it more, but that’s not the case, because the kids probably
have even less than the teenagers, and the teens still showed
this exaggerated response. So this is telling us that there’s something really special
about the teenage brain. There’s a sharp increase in sensitivity to rewards and novel information from childhood to adolescence, but then there’s a sharp decrease
from adolescence to adulthood. And that probably has something to do with the fact that the prefrontal cortex
is starting to come online, as people transition into adulthood, and regulating the emotional response
to the rewarding information. So what does this all mean
for behavior and for your everyday life? Well, there are a few things.>From my perspective, this is a really exciting time
to study the teenage brain. Although scientists
have made significant progress in understanding what makes
the teenage brain unique, we still have a lot to learn. For instance, we’re just now
starting to appreciate that this sensitivity in the brain
to rewards and to emotions might lead teenagers
to make poor choices sometimes, but it also presents
an excellent opportunity to seek out new adventures,
to meet new people and to confront interesting challenges in ways that people
don’t typically do later in life. And I predict that, as we continue to conduct
more of this research, we will learn to take advantage of the sensitivity of the brain
during adolescence to generate new ideas and to promote creative thinking. There’s a lot that we can and will learn
from the adolescent brain and from adolescence in general
in the coming decade. And perhaps we’ll learn
that taking risks and seeking out rewards are really adaptive behaviors
in many contexts that actually lead
to really good decisions, and that help individuals navigate the often challenging
and intimidating transition from childhood to adulthood. So with that,
I encourage you to savor the excitability of your teenage brain and to enjoy all the new people you meet
and all the adventures you take. Thank you. (Applause)


100 Responses

  1. Amanda Duffin

    April 17, 2013 4:49 am

    I dislike memorized presentations, especially with the "umhs" :/ makes it hard to pay attention everytime she says it

  2. Sally Taylor

    June 24, 2013 1:52 pm

    Does the teenage brain also have an exaggerated response when things are taken away from them? Teenagers are often regarded as being 'overly dramatic'. I'm a teenager myself and I find that my responses to bad things are blown out of proportion, but it is something that is very hard to control, just as when I get exited about things. I rarely feel neutral.

  3. Kyle Broder

    September 29, 2013 8:27 am

    I was surprised that there was no mention of the amygdala. Interestingly enough, the amygdala hijacks the adolescent and teenage brain and creates erratic emotional states. The amygdala is also at the heart of the risk taking behaviours that stimulate/simulate the fight or flight response. This is used as an explanation for increased drug use and speeding in teenagers… The mention of the striatum, though, that was interesting, and something that is often not mentioned by neuroscientists…

  4. Saved2theLight

    October 12, 2013 12:49 am

    I have a broader question because it seems to me that many adults are not in rhythm with their logic thinking hence they too may not have full use of their frontal lobe. It seems to me that we can not measure or say someone is capable at a certain age of logic. I think this logic comes from imprinting through a constant stream of information that expands the frontal lobe. This process has a sliding scale based not on age but on education and information gathering and storage within the brain.

  5. Saved2theLight

    October 12, 2013 12:54 am

    Kyle you are correct; by looking at one part of the brain and attributing all behavior to that section or area is shall we say "made for TV" type lecturing. All sections and chemicals play a role. This is why many adults also act as adolescence because their frontal lobes combined with other areas have not been fully realized or developed due to the lack of brain food (information). The more information you absorb the more exponential the neuronal net will divide and link.

  6. Mind Agilis

    November 21, 2013 9:20 pm

    Very insightful! Are there specific ways to make the most of the sensitivity and 'plasticity' of the adolescent brain? Can we harness this wonderful potential of the teenage brain in thoughtful, more systematic ways? Could video games help enhance processing speed, mental flexibility and creativity?

  7. Elfos64

    February 23, 2014 8:17 am

    That's great and all, but helps next to nothing as far as knowing how to understand/deal with teenagers and the issues they have (many of which they make for themselves). 

  8. jo atjo

    May 2, 2014 6:34 pm

    all this research stuff is trumped by who teenagers associate with. I have several brothers that bother my parents and give them hell, 99 percent of the problem is the influences around them. They were raised in suburbia with very good formal education, now they dwell in the home and are weekend warriors who contribute nothing to bills and constantly fight. All this MTV BET VINE TWITTER BS is causing these children to grow up with twisted values where a $230 sneaker is more important than buying books for your class in college or helping mom out with groceries. 

  9. Graveo Feces

    May 23, 2014 5:47 pm

    I wonder how many trials they did, and the diversity between the test subjects, especially the teenagers.  

  10. Christopher Go

    July 21, 2014 8:27 pm

    perhaps teenagers are more responsive to sugar and money because…..
    1. They're always hungry
    2. They're usually broke

  11. Rhea Black

    March 25, 2015 7:25 pm

    It stands to reason that the opposite is true – that fear, self-consciousness, and frustration are also heightened.  We've all known talkative children who suddenly become excruciatingly shy or sullen teens, self included.   Instead of berating them for it, be aware that it's neurological – but also that it can be counteracted with positive stimulus. Awesome talk.

  12. Tyler Moore

    April 12, 2016 5:48 pm

    As a high school coach, this is VERY obvious. I struggle with the logic sometimes of how my players will get energized for rewards for performance in amazing ways on simple things like sugar. But what I would find rewarding is almost compeltely neautral in their eyes. Love the science behind it

  13. Charlie Abbot

    July 5, 2016 4:09 am

    I don't suppose you have anything, study or colleague wise, going on in the Ontario, Canada area?
    Great presentation.

  14. HAHAH of HAHA land

    July 13, 2016 3:41 am

    An explanation for teenagers liking the sugar water more is that they are willing to please their legal superiors as much as possible as they would in school. Adults are on equal ground so they can say whatever the hell they want. Everything else might be reading a little too deep..

  15. HAHAH of HAHA land

    July 13, 2016 3:46 am

    The response to money is simple. The teenagers know the value of money more than the kids, but don't have the volume of the adults..

  16. HomeView TV

    August 18, 2016 11:49 am

    does anyone know the email for Dr Adriana, I am doing an assignment for psychology and it is related to this work. it would be great to receive extra information and insight. thank you

  17. Bluebird M

    February 3, 2017 11:33 pm

    Teenager just like sugar because it makes them happy. Kids are allowed to eat generally more sugar and for adults it is just something normal…
    And kinds didn't react to money because they don't get what money means. Teenagers will think of all the fun stuff and date nights they can get with the money. And adults for them it is just money. They will think of their work and how exhausting it is.. So all in all the results are nothing special. it is all logical…

  18. smalltown 777

    February 4, 2017 11:22 am

    The brain of teens there monsters of iniquity they enjoy making our like hell and laugh about it but we still love them lol.

  19. Crabby Patty102

    June 13, 2017 9:50 pm

    Why do people think being a teenager suddenly makes you an adolescent? Adolescence can start early and late its nothing to do with being a teenager it just refers to people aged 13 to 19.

  20. James West

    June 20, 2017 3:51 pm

    kid=presensitized, adolescent=optimal sensitivity, adult=desensitized… easy peasy. As you understand bills, anxiety levels kill that initial excitement.

  21. Parker Wiseman

    July 25, 2017 2:38 am

    I'm 14 and my prefrontal cortex must be the size of a semi truck because I'm always over anylizing situations and thinking and rethinking all the possible actions I could take and the consequences of those actions


    October 31, 2017 6:44 pm

    Dear Adriana,Situation designed by society creates the way of work for the Brain,correct me if i am wrong

  23. arian shehu

    November 12, 2017 3:56 pm

    This is fucking bullshit !! People with no emotional intelligence whatsoever ..with no "real lives" …no real connection with real human beings….go behind a computer and study how the brain works ??? Live and you'll know how people behave and why they do what they do …it has nothing to do with tests and researches…the world could be such a wonderful paradise !!

  24. FucktheSystem101

    December 26, 2017 11:52 pm

    The Myth of the Teen Brain
    We blame teen turmoil on immature brains. But did the brains cause the turmoil, or did the turmoil shape the brains?

    By Robert Epstein on June 1, 2007
    Its not only in newspaper headlines–its even on magazine covers. TIME, U.S. News & World Report and even Scientific American Mind have all run cover stories proclaiming that an incompletely developed brain accounts for the emotional problems and irresponsible behavior of teenagers. The assertion is driven by various studies of brain activity and anatomy in teens. Imaging studies sometimes show, for example, that teens and adults use their brains somewhat differently when performing certain tasks.

    As a longtime researcher in psychology and a sometime teacher of courses on research methods and statistics, I have become increasingly concerned about how such studies are being interpreted. Although imaging technology has shed interesting new light on brain activity, it is dangerous to presume that snapshots of activity in certain regions of the brain necessarily provide useful information about the causes of thought, feeling and behavior.

    Automatically assuming that the brain causes behavior is problematic because we know that an individuals genes and environmental history–and even his or her own behavior–mold the brain over time. There is clear evidence that any unique features that may exist in the brains of teens–to the limited extent that such features exist–are the result of social influences rather than the cause of teen turmoil. As you will see, a careful look at relevant data shows that the teen brain we read about in the headlines–the immature brain that supposedly causes teen problems–is nothing more than a myth.

    Cultural Considerations
    The teen brain fits conveniently into a larger myth, namely, that teens are inherently incompetent and irresponsible. Psychologist G. Stanley Hall launched this myth in 1904 with the publication of his landmark two-volume book Adolescence. Hall was misled both by the turmoil of his times and by a popular theory from biology that later proved faulty. He witnessed an exploding industrial revolution and massive immigration that put hundreds of thousands of young people onto the streets of Americas burgeoning cities. Hall never looked beyond those streets in formulating his theories about teens, in part because he believed in "recapitulation"–a theory from biology that asserted that individual development (ontogeny) mimicked evolutionary development (phylogeny). To Hall, adolescence was the necessary and inevitable reenactment of a "savage, pigmoid" stage of human evolution. By the 1930s recapitulation theory was completely discredited in biology, but some psychologists and the general public never got the message. Many still believe, consistent with Halls assertion, that teen turmoil is an inevitable part of human development.

    Today teens in the U.S. and some other Westernized nations do display some signs of distress. The peak age for arrest in the U.S. for most crimes has long been 18; for some crimes, such as arson, the peak comes much earlier. On average, American parents and teens tend to be in conflict with one another 20 times a month–an extremely high figure indicative of great pain on both sides. An extensive study conducted in 2004 suggests that 18 is the peak age for depression among people 18 and older in this country. Drug use by teens, both legal and illegal, is clearly a problem here, and suicide is the third leading cause of death among U.S. teens. Prompted by a rash of deadly school shootings over the past decade, many American high schools now resemble prisons, with guards, metal detectors and video monitoring systems, and the high school dropout rate is nearly 50 percent among minorities in large U.S. cities.

    But are such problems truly inevitable? If the turmoil-generating "teen brain" were a universal developmental phenomenon, we would presumably find turmoil of this kind around the world. Do we?

    In 1991 anthropologist Alice Schlegel of the University of Arizona and Herbert Barry III, a psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh, reviewed research on teens in 186 preindustrial societies. Among the important conclusions they drew about these societies: about 60 percent had no word for "adolescence," teens spent almost all their time with adults, teens showed almost no signs of psychopathology, and antisocial behavior in young males was completely absent in more than half these cultures and extremely mild in cultures in which it did occur.

    Even more significant, a series of long-term studies set in motion in the 1980s by anthropologists Beatrice Whiting and John Whiting of Harvard University suggests that teen trouble begins to appear in other cultures soon after the introduction of certain Western influences, especially Western-style schooling, television programs and movies. Delinquency was not an issue among the Inuit people of Victoria Island, Canada, for example, until TV arrived in 1980. By 1988 the Inuit had created their first permanent police station to try to cope with the new problem.

    Consistent with these modern observations, many historians note that through most of recorded human history the teen years were a relatively peaceful time of transition to adulthood. Teens were not trying to break away from adults; rather they were learning to become adults. Some historians, such as Hugh Cunningham of the University of Kent in England and Marc Kleijwegt of the University of WisconsinMadison, author of Ancient Youth: The Ambiguity of Youth and the Absence of Adolescence in Greco-Roman Society (J. C. Gieben, 1991), suggest that the tumultuous period we call adolescence is a very recent phenomenon–not much more than a century old.

    My own recent research, viewed in combination with many other studies from anthropology, psychology, sociology, history and other disciplines, suggests the turmoil we see among teens in the U.S. is the result of what I call the "artificial extension of childhood" past the onset of puberty. Over the past century, we have increasingly infantilized our young, treating older and older people as children while also isolating them from adults and passing laws to restrict their behavior [see box on next page]. Surveys I have conducted show that teens in the U.S. are subjected to more than 10 times as many restrictions as are mainstream adults, twice as many restrictions as active-duty U.S. Marines, and even twice as many restrictions as incarcerated felons. And research I conducted with Diane Dumas as part of her dissertation research at the California School of Professional Psychology shows a positive correlation between the extent to which teens are infantilized and the extent to which they display signs of psychopathology.

    The headlines notwithstanding, there is no question that teen turmoil is not inevitable. It is a creation of modern culture, pure and simple–and so, it would appear, is the brain of the troubled teen.

    Dissecting Brain Studies
    A variety of recent research–most of it conducted using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology–is said to show the existence of a teen brain. Studies by Beatriz Luna of the Laboratory of Neurocognitive Development at the University of Pittsburgh, for example, are said to show that teens use prefrontal cortical resources differently than adults do. Susan F. Tapert of the University of California, San Diego, found that for certain memory tasks, teens use smaller areas of the cortex than adults do. An electroencephalogram (EEG) study by Irwin Feinberg and his colleagues at the University of California, Davis, shows that delta-wave activity during sleep declines in the early teen years. Jay N. Giedd of the Child Psychiatry Branch at the National Institute of Mental Health and other researchers suggest that the decline in delta-wave activity might be related to synaptic pruning–a reduction in the number of interconnections among neurons.

    This work seems to support the idea of the teen brain we see in the headlines until we realize two things. First, most of the brain changes that are observed during the teen years lie on a continuum of changes that take place over much of our lives. For example, a 1993 study by Jsus Pujol and his colleagues at the Autonomous University of Barcelona looked at changes in the corpus callosum–a massive structure that connects the two sides of the brain–over a two-year period with individuals between 11 and 61 years old. They found that although the rate of growth declined as people aged, this structure still grew by about 4 percent each year in people in their 40s (compared with a growth rate of 29 percent in their youngest subjects). Other studies, conducted by researchers such as Elizabeth Sowell of the University of California, Los Angeles, show that gray matter in the brain continues to disappear from childhood well into adulthood.

    Second, I have not been able to find even a single study that establishes a causal relation between the properties of the brain being examined and the problems we see in teens. By their very nature, imaging studies are correlational, showing simply that activity in the brain is associated with certain behaviors or emotions. As we learn in elementary statistics courses, correlation does not even imply causation. In that sense, no imaging study could possibly identify the brain as a causal agent, no matter what areas of the brain were being observed.

    Is it ever legitimate to say that human behavior is caused by brain anatomy or activity? In his 1998 book Blaming the Brain, Elliot S. Valenstein, now psychology professor emeritus at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, deftly points out that we make a serious error of logic when we blame almost any behavior on the brain–especially when drawing conclusions from brain-scanning studies. Without doubt, all behavior

  25. Douglas Shire Aged Persons Home

    January 27, 2018 3:05 am

    and this is the case not just in humans…but in kids, but in monkeys!!! ha ha ha

  26. Diana Mcmullen

    April 16, 2018 4:02 am

    I am thinking if the adults in the sugar water study had participated in endurance exercise for 3-4 hours prior, that sugar water would have tasted way better to them. Adolescents are often in a caloric deficit/have much higher caloric needs. They would have needed to control for the level of hunger/depletion of glycogen reserves to create proper control for the study. I'm an ultra runner…pretty sure after running for 6 hours I am going to "like" the taste of sugar water FAR MORE than your average sedentary adolescent.

  27. Desert Loner

    November 5, 2018 3:30 pm

    Dr Robert epstein debunked the teen brain. Wrote several articles about it. 2 are in scientific american magazine

  28. Tiffany Brusa

    November 6, 2018 8:57 am

    AMAZING presentation, so sad I just now found it, as I am now an proud parent of a tween, and a restaurant manager trying to understand and coach, while dealing with so many emotions and entitlement….Thank you!

  29. Martyn Richards

    November 30, 2018 10:21 am

    Interesting, watching this, then reading the comments below. Apologies for the broad generalization, but there seems as much diversity between older and younger responses as there was in the referred-to research experiment. Please, bottom line: there ARE things going on in the brain during adolescence that were unknown until relatively recently. Please don't deny this. But we are learning all the time. What these changes in the brain MEAN is what is in debate.

  30. stefan Hahn

    December 10, 2018 6:23 am

    Don't forget dudes, this is a female speaking here, they use the other side of the brain, they see things in a whole different way, which is not bad,
    unless it involves sex, or emotional feelings. We guys don't get headaches as often too. 🙂

  31. RobinTheOldSchool

    January 10, 2019 2:02 am

    Ah fuck we're stuck studying the damn mind of teens trying to change our choices, ya wanna know what my friend still did after the lessons?


  32. shermaine orpilla

    March 8, 2019 4:03 pm

    what are the take home points if the video and why is it important ? asking for a friend

  33. Djilali Ramdane

    March 18, 2019 9:30 pm

    Cheers for the Video clip! Excuse me for chiming in, I would love your opinion. Have you tried – Trentvorty Kids Science Theorem (Have a quick look on google cant remember the place now)? It is an awesome one of a kind product for becoming an excellent parent minus the normal expense. Ive heard some awesome things about it and my good mate called Gray at last got great results with it.

  34. froot

    April 4, 2019 1:03 am

    very good information. The slides felt a little bland to me though lol, made it feel a little boring

  35. Jane Turner

    May 20, 2019 9:32 pm

    "This happens not only in humans, … but in kids as well."

    Kids aren't humans… they're animals!

  36. Plus Bonus

    June 9, 2019 8:40 am

    Come back when you have at least two teenagers under your care and lets see what really happens !


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