Mind Science Foundation Expert Reveals the Science Behind the Teen Brain

By Iris Gonzalez
Abigail Baird is a professor of psychological science at Vassar College. Courtesy photo.

Why do teenagers make bad choices?

If you have ever parented, taught, or mentored teenagers, you may have wondered why their thought processes can be so different from adults. The reasons stem from how the adolescent brain develops.

The Mind Science Foundation has asked Abigail Baird, professor of psychological science on the Arnhold Family Chair at Vassar College to discuss the teenaged brain and its neurological growth spurt in adolescence that shapes how we process and consolidate our life experiences.

She will speak May 9 at 6:30 p.m. in Pearl Stable; tickets are available here.

Baird’s research focuses on the biological basis of adolescent brain development and how it shapes behavior. Her work examines how social, emotional, cognitive, and brain-based factors drive how adolescents become adults. Baird’s long-term goal is to identify and prevent mental and behavioral disorders and help inform legal and educational policy with a better understanding of how adolescents make decisions.

Her experiments have revealed teens use a different part of their brain than adults do when making many decisions. Teens may take longer to respond because they use a part of the brain that focuses on reasoning to make the decision. In contrast, adults typically can answer questions more quickly because they use a part of the brain associated with an emotional response from their prior experiences, rather than the reasoning part of their brain—the frontal lobe.

“Teenagers tend to have more activity in their frontal lobes because they are actually thinking about the choice,” Baird said. “But their frontal lobes are still developing.”

For adults, making decisions can be a ‘no-brainer’ because adults have more prior experiences as a reference. Teens must ponder choices using a part of their brain that is not fully mature until their twenties due to their limited life experiences.

Baird will share how personal experiences helps teens learn how to make the right decisions as these memories become part of their operating set of reference points.

“Teenagers are still very much a work in progress,” Baird said. “Our job as adults is to be their external frontal lobes until they can rely upon their own frontal lobes.”

Mind Science Foundation director Meriam Good understood the need for objective, critical information about what teens experience and more importantly, what they need to become mature decision makers.

“We all feel the pressure from doing our best as parents,” Good said. “It is critical to arms ourselves with the scientific facts about our children’s brain development as they enter adolescence.”

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