How Teenaged Brains Turn the Corner

You know how things suddenly “click” into place when comprehension hits? The eureka! moment is a moment of brain synchrony that comes with a touch of pleasure and a transient sense of well-being.

But not all brains arrive at the eureka! moment at the same time, or in the same way. Not only must we take into account a person’s experience and intelligence, we must also account for the person’s level of brain development.

Brain function takes place by complex, real-time cross-brain oscillatory synchrony of neuronal networks. But the sophistication and reliability of cross-brain synchrony is different for brains of children and adolescents, than for adult brains.

Guiding the brains of a young child is different from guiding the brains of an older child. And trying to guide an adolescent brain — marinating in peer pressure and hormones — can be even more hazardous for everyone concerned.

Teenaged brains are impulsive and erratic, unable to anticipate the consequences of actions. Adolescent years are turbulent for teenagers, parents, teachers, and the parts of society at large that interact with teenagers.

Here is a brief overview of the process of the adolescent brain transformation:

Brain development is characterized by maturational processes that span the period from childhood through adolescence to adulthood, but little is known whether and how developmental processes differ during these phases. We analyzed the development of functional networks by measuring neural synchrony in EEG recordings during a Gestalt perception task in 68 participants ranging in age from 6 to 21 years. Until early adolescence, developmental improvements in cognitive performance were accompanied by increases in neural synchrony. This developmental phase was followed by an unexpected decrease in neural synchrony that occurred during late adolescence and was associated with reduced performance. After this period of destabilization, we observed a reorganization of synchronization patterns that was accompanied by pronounced increases in gamma-band power and in theta and beta phase synchrony. These findings provide evidence for the relationship between neural synchrony and late brain development that has important implications for the understanding of adolescence as a critical period of brain maturation. _PNAS 2009

The full article is available at the link above.

Bursts of synchrony as seen in MEG

Bursts of high amplitude local synchrony as seen in MEG Image: Rhythms of the Brain by Gyorgy Buzsaki Oxford University Press 2006

We propose that the pronounced changes in neural synchrony seen during the transition from late adolescence to early adulthood reflect a critical developmental period that is associated with a rearrangement of functional networks and with an increase of the temporal precision and spatial focusing of neuronal interactions. The expected increases in oscillation frequency and synchrony during childhood and early adolescence were followed by an unexpected but significant reduction of phase synchronization in the beta frequency range during the late adolescent period, suggesting that cortical networks undergo a transient destabilization before the emergence of mature cortical networks. _PNAS

Why is this developmental transformation important for education, child-raising, and the training of a dangerous child? Because parents and teachers must work with distinctly different brains, depending upon the level of development — even though the child is “the same person” over those time periods.

And it is useful to understand the different sensitive periods or critical windows of development, so that you can help guide the sequencing and complexity of the child’s training.

If one is watching closely, he can sense moments of comprehension in a child or adolescent. It may not be the particular comprehension you are working toward, but brief questioning will sort that out. And sometimes the accidental comprehension proves more valuable in the long run than the epiphany you were aiming for.

Ideally, by the time a child reaches adolescence, he is largely in control of his own education, with minimal — but careful — oversight on the part of parents or trainers. Test scores — and the quality of finished practical skills projects or skilled motor routines — should tell the parent whether the child is on the right track and progressing at a reasonable individual rate.

It is not mandatory for parents to understand the science of neural synchrony, but it can help provide a deeper understanding of what is going on — for those who are interested and are willing to pay close attention.

Addendum: The adolescent burst of brain architecture transformation is a key reason why the life trajectories of men and women are different. While 12 year old boys and girls still have fairly similar brains — despite all evidence from casual observations — by the time a teenager reaches the age of 18 or 19, his brain has been irrevocably altered by sex-hormone influenced remodeling.

This is why feminist psychologists focus on comparisons of pre-pubertal or early pubertal children, when attempting to prove that there are no sex differences in spatial and mathematical aptitude. Anyone who understands the dramatic brain transformations that take place during adolescence is likely to throw away most of the work of such ideologically driven pseudo-scientists.

Also, it is important to understand the risks of drug exposure to normal adolescent neurological development. There is a link between adolescent marijuana use and increased prevalence of schizophrenia, for example. Schizophrenic brains display abnormalities of neuronal synchrony which are not so prominent in normal brains.

Brains develop in massively parallel sequences, strongly influenced by environmental cues. Very few people have a sound understanding of how brains work, from the molecular level through the neuronal network level through behavioural levels. Particularly in the setting of widely variant environmental milieus. Ignorance of ourselves is what makes tyrannical control of the masses so easy for the corrupt.

More background information on neural oscillations and synchrony:

Gyorgy Buzsaki, one of the leaders in the field of neuronal synchrony

Phase Synchrony among Neural Oscillations in Human Cortex

Cortical Feedback Controlls Frequency and Synchrony of Neural Oscillations in Visual Thalamus

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