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New Brain Research About Young Teens and Identity Formation

My friend (and YMCP participant) Gavin Richardson sent me a link to a report on a fascinating new brain study (read the summary of findings here).

The researchers did MRI brain scans of a group of 10 year olds (pre-pubescent), and again, on the same kids, when they were 13. While the scans were taking place, the researchers asked them a series of questions: some were particularly focused on self-perception and identity issues (and, even more particularly, on identity issues connected to social interaction), while other questions merely focused on knowledge.

They found no significant difference in brain function on the knowledge questions. BUT, they found a significant difference in brain activity (focused in part of the pre-frontal cortex) with the self-perception and identity questions.

My thoughts:

I find this to be a wonderful scientific confirmation of the reality that after puberty, young teens begin the trek into the new world of abstract thinking; and a big part of abstract thinking is the new possibility of third-person perspective. In other words, young teens, unlike their pre-teen counterparts, have the ability (if not practice) to view themselves, and other people and objects and issues, from another’s perspective.

This new third-person thinking is rocket fuel to the adolescent task of identity formation. Without self-perception and some sense of how others view me, it’s difficult to form an active identity.

The part of the brain that was really firing–the part where the difference showed up–was the pre-frontal cortex. This is a big deal. on one hand, it makes complete sense that it was that part of the brain, since it’s that part of the brain that’s responsible for higher-order thought (and third-person perspective, including self-perception, is complex stuff). But here’s what’s significant about that: the pre-frontal cortex (or frontal lobes) is also the part of the brain that we’ve heard so much about in adolescents over the last 10 years.

MRIs have shown us that the frontal lobes of teenagers are significantly underdeveloped, something we didn’t know until MRIs helped us look at live, healthy teenage brains in action. The reality of underdeveloped frontal lobes (responsible for all sorts of important things, like wisdom, prioritization, impulse control, decision making, and other critical thinking skills) has become, wrongly in my opinion, cause for assuming that teenagers are not capable of these thought processes. This study confirms for me: sure, teenagers (and particularly young teens) are limited in their decision-making, prioritization, impulse control and so on; BUT they are NOT incapable.

Parents and youth workers: let’s get those pre-frontal cortexes firing. I’m convinced that, other than the mysterious transforming work of God, frontal lobe development is about the most critical aspect of both faith formation and the move to adulthood.