The Teenage Brain

Think back to when you were entering high school. Did you have trouble getting up in the morning? Did your teachers think you were moody? Did your parents think you had turned into an alien? These changes in your behaviour were probably because you were a teenager and your brain was playing havoc with your life.

Let's start with waking up in the morning. This is often a source of conflict and aggravation for teenagers and parents. In this case, science is on teens' side. Researchers have found that the body's sleep-wake cycle is governed by something called our circadian clock. This determines when our body is ready to fall asleep and when it is ready to wake up. During the teenage years, the circadian clock shifts forward about four hours. For example, the child, who used to go to bed at 8:30 P.M. and rise at 6 A.M., now wants to stay up past midnight and sleep in until 10 A.M. This change puts teens' sleep cycles out of sync with the sleep habits of the rest of their family. If teens are forced to get up at the same time as everyone else, then they begin to build up a sleep debt. Researchers speculate that this sleep deprivation may provide one explanation for why teens feel unable to concentrate at home or stay alert at school and are generally bad-tempered. Lack of sleep also has serious consequences with respect to learning. During sleep, we rehearse all of the learning from our day and assign it to long-term memory. Without enough sleep, we aren't able to learn effectively.

Research is providing provisional insights into other areas of teenage brain development, too. Until recently, many researchers believed that most important brain developments took place in the womb and during the first three years of life. However, a large-scale study of 145 children and adolescents, carried out by Dr. Jay Giedd and colleagues at the National Institute for Mental Health, has shown that the teenage years are also an important period for brain development. We know that the brain grows like a tree. Just before puberty, the brain overproduces lots of new brain cells. Then, during the teenage years, it prunes away any cells that are unused. This trimming of brain cells has prompted scientists to propose a "use it or lose it" theory of brain development. Giedd believes that which leisure activities teens participate in during these years-from playing video games to undertaking more demanding hobbies such as photography and karate-determine which connections survive into adulthood.

Meanwhile, in Boston, researchers in the laboratories at McLean Hospital are carrying out exploratory research on how the teen brain processes facial expressions. Teens and adults were asked to view a series of pictures showing a variety of facial expressions. The researchers found that the teens used a different part of the brain than the adults when processing the pictures. This resulted in them misreading the emotions being expressed. Teen brains showed more activation in the brain circuits that respond emotionally. In other words, the teens' responses were more like gut reactions. Adults, on the other hand, processed the facial expressions using the prefrontal part of the brain. This area is responsible for the executive functions of the brain including planning, decision making, reasoning, and judgment. The researchers speculate that this area regulates the more emotional part of the brain and helps to control reactions. The fact that the teen brain is not interacting with the emotional region in the same way as the adult brain could provide clues to understanding adolescent behaviour. Therefore, rather than expecting teenagers to act like grown-ups, parents and caretakers need to be aware that teenage brains process the world differently than adult brains.

While brain researchers are full of enthusiasm regarding these new findings, they are also quick to caution against translating them into educational policies or new teaching fads without first considering whether this is truly justified. One point that all researchers agree on is that the most constructive thing adults can do to ensure healthy brain development in their children is to spend loving, quality time with them.

annoyed or unhappy: 
Keith had seemed moody all morning.

strange and not familiar or relating to creatures from another planet:
an alien spacecraft

confusion and lack of order, especially causing damage or trouble:
The storm caused havoc in the garden, uprooting trees and blowing a fence down.
The delay played (= caused) havoc with their travel arrangements.

violent or threatening behaviour, especially between groups of young people:
There was some aggro between football fans at the station.

trouble or difficulty:
I've been getting a lot of aggravation at work recently.
I'd complain to the manager but it's not worth the aggro.

sleep-wake cycle
Sleep-wake cycle refers to our 24 hour daily sleep pattern which consists of approximately 16 hours of daytime wakefulness and 8 hours of night-time sleep.

relating to a period of 24 hours, used especially when talking about changes in people’s bodies

circadian clock (How Your Body's Circadian Rhythm)
relating to a period of 24 hours, used especially when talking about changes in people’s bodies. This determines when our body is ready to fall asleep and when it is ready to wake up.

jet lag
the feeling of tiredness and confusion which people experience after making a long journey in an aircraft to a place where the time is different from the place they left:
Every time I fly to the States, I get really bad jet lag.

something which you do often and regularly, sometimes without knowing that you are doing it:
I always buy the same brand of toothpaste just out of habit.
I'm trying not to get into the habit of always having biscuits with my coffee.
I used to swim twice a week, but I seem to have got out of the habit recently.
I was taught to drive by my boyfriend and I'm afraid I've picked up some of his bad habits.

debt (sleep debt)
something, especially money, which is owed to someone else, or the state of owing something:
He managed to pay off his debts in two years.
They are in debt to (= owe money to) the bank.
He ran/got into debt (= borrowed money) after he lost his job.
The company is deep in debt (= owes a lot of money).

when you do not have things or conditions that are usually considered necessary for a pleasant life:
They used sleep deprivation as a form of torture.
There were food shortages and other deprivations during the Civil War.

speculate that
to guess possible answers to a question when you do not have enough information to be certain:
The newspapers have speculated that they will get married next year.
I don't know why she did it - I'm just speculating.
A spokesperson declined to speculate on the cause of the train crash.
[+ that] The newspapers have speculated that they will get married next year.

quick to see, understand and act in a particular situation:
I'm not feeling very alert today - not enough sleep last night!
A couple of alert readers wrote in to the paper pointing out the mistake.
Parents should be alert to sudden changes in children's behaviour.

an often bad or inconvenient result of a particular action or situation:
Not making a will can have serious consequences for the people you might wish to benefit.
I told the hairdresser to do what she wanted to my hair, and look at the consequences!
Well, if you insist on eating so much, you'll have to suffer/take (= accept and deal with) the consequences!

When someone rehearses a story or an argument, they repeat it with all the details:
These are arguments that I've heard rehearsed at meetings many times before.

for the present time but likely to change; temporary:
a provisional government
These dates are only provisional.

the organ in the body of a woman or other female mammal in which a baby develops before birth:
Researchers are looking at how a mother's health can affect the baby in the womb.

the stage in a person's life when they develop from a child into an adult because of changes in their body that make them able to have children:
At puberty, pubic hair develops and girls begin to menstruate.

prune (trim)
to reduce something by removing things which are not necessary:
Arco has reacted to the loss in revenue by pruning (back) its expansion plans.
I felt his essay needed a little pruning.

trim (prune)
to make something tidier or more level by cutting a small amount off it:
to trim the hedge
My hair needs trimming.
Trim off the leafy ends of the vegetable before cooking.

to prompt sb to do sth
to make someone decide to say or do something:
What prompted you to say that?
I don't know what prompted him to leave.

the time when you are not working or doing other duties:
leisure activities
Most people only have a limited amount of leisure time.
The town lacks leisure facilities such as a swimming pool or squash courts.

an activity which someone does for pleasure when they are not working:
Ben's hobby is restoring vintage motorcycles.​

a person or animal that has grown to full size and strength:
An adult under British law is someone over 18 years old.
Adults pay an admission charge but children get in free.

the part of someone's life when they are an adult:
People in Britain legally reach adulthood at 18.
Responsibility, I suppose, is what defines adulthood.

a room or building with scientific equipment for doing scientific tests or for teaching science, or a place where chemicals or medicines are produced:
research laboratories
a computer laboratory
Laboratory tests suggest that the new drug may be used to treat cancer.

something shaped approximately like a circle, especially a route, path or sports track which starts and ends in the same place:
They test the car tyres on a motor racing circuit.
We made a leisurely circuit of the city walls before lunch.

relating to making decisions and managing businesses, or suitable for people with important jobs in business:
His executive skills will be very useful to the company.
executive cars
an executive suite


someone who looks after a person who is young, old or ill

a feeling of energetic interest in a particular subject or activity and an eagerness to be involved in it:
One of the good things about teaching young children is their enthusiasm.
After the accident he lost his enthusiasm for the sport.
I just can't work up (= start to feel) any enthusiasm for the whole project.

to warn someone:
The newspaper cautioned its readers against buying shares without getting good advice first.

to change something into a new form, especially to turn a plan into reality:
So how does this theory translate into practical policy?
The ways of working that he had learnt at college did not translate well (= were not suitable) to the world of business.

a style, activity or interest which is very popular for a short period of time:
the latest health fad
There was a fad for wearing ripped jeans a few years ago.

to (cause to) lose colour, brightness or strength gradually:
If you hang your clothes out in the bright sun, they will fade.
My suntan is already fading.
They arrived home just as the light was fading (= as it was going dark).
The sun had faded the bright blue walls.

If advice, criticism or actions are constructive, they are useful and intended to help or improve something:
She criticised my writing, but in a way that was very constructive - I learned a lot from her.
If you don't have anything constructive to say, I'd rather you kept quiet.

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Reference:  Focus on Vocabulary
FoV 01 - U02C07

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