All in their heads


We talk with neuroscience educator and director of X-Factor Education NATHAN WALLIS about significant changes in the teenage brain, especially when hormones are thrown into the mix.

EMOTIONAL & HORMONAL
Ever experienced exasperation because you can’t get your adolescent daughter to rise and shine at 7am? Or felt frustrated because your teenage son didn’t think things through?

Well, as Nathan explains, the frontal cortex – the part of the brain that is logical and rational, that sets goals, makes decisions and weighs up consequences – gets ‘shut for renovations’ for around three years during adolescence. And the limbic system, which is the emotional, and sexual, part of the brain, reigns supreme. For something like ‘90 per cent of the time, your teenager will be operating in their limbic system – and only 10 per cent of the time their frontal cortex will be online’.

During this period of restructuring, ‘the hormones also go crazy’, says Nathan. Not only is the limbic system in control, with the hormones running wild, but the frontal cortex – which effectively functions as ‘the brakes’ – isn’t connected for a large part of the time.

SLEEPY HEADS
With so much going on in their brains – and in their lives – teenagers need more sleep than adults, says Nathan. And yet the hormones melatonin, which tells us to go to sleep, and cortisol, which tells us to wake, are all over the place, disrupting teenagers’ circadian rhythms. On average, Nathan says, teens tend to stay awake two hours later than they used to, and they find it very difficult to wake when the alarm goes, as cortisol levels are lower than they used to be.

This is compounded by social factors, he says – like teenagers staying up into the small hours on Saturday night and then sleeping much of Sunday. But, regardless, Nathan reminds parents that it is very difficult to force their cycle back to how it was.

BOUNDARY CROSSERS
Nathan dips into evolutionary theory when he talks about the societal advantages of having teenagers who are driven by hormones and emotions, and who want to stay up later than their parents. ‘For most of evolutionary history, this was an advantage – people needed to cross boundaries and procreate!’

One point Nathan makes – that still rings true and that deserves celebrating – is that during adolescence the brain is inventive and imaginative, and capable of amazing thinking.

OPENING MINDS
Information about the brain and how it grows to reach its full potential has exploded into our awareness over the past twenty plus years. In presentations around the country, and overseas, Nathan Wallis shares valuable information about brain development, and the implications for us as parents.  

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