Zits and the Teenage Brain

I’ve been trying to develop a workshop on the teen brain for quite some time now, but I had some trouble finding an engaging way of presenting all the research I’d collected on adolescent brain growth and its effects on teen behavior and learning. Mind you, I wasn’t seeking to present that much information in so much detail. I simply want participants to be aware that beginning in adolescence, and continuing into their early twenties, their brains undergo a second growth spurt (comparable in significance to brain development in the first two years of life), which will affect their mood, behavior, and ability to learn. This period of growth is accompanied by pruning and myelination (for greater processing speed and efficiency), and all this happens largely in a back-to-front fashion, meaning that the prefrontal cortex, or the rational, executive center of the brain, is the last to mature. This leaves young people more reliant on the amygdala, or the emotional and reactive center of the brain. Because the brain operates as a “use it or lose it” system, where the skills that are most used are strongly reinforced, this period of brain development is a great opportunity to learn new things and focus on what is most important. (Are your eyes glazed over yet?)

I’d considered showing some clips of a documentary that included both scientific views and more personal perspectives from teenagers, parents, and teachers, followed by some sort of role play where participants could offer solutions to some of the problems posed in the program (lack of sleep, moodiness, etc.), but I just didn’t feel like I could make the session dynamic enough. It was only recently that I finally figured out a “hook” engaging enough for teenagers: Zits comics.Those familiar with the strip know that it pokes fun at the main character, Jeremy, for being a teenage boy. As described by youth development expert Sheryl Feinstein, teens are “[f]orgetful, disorganized, and late for everything but dinner” (35). Jeremy is also perennially sleep-deprived, stressed out, and love-sick. He is in constant communication with his friends, but around his parents he is sullen, sarcastic, and silent. He wavers back and forth between yearning for independence and needing their the emotional, moral, and financial support. He flabbergasts them with his failure to think through consequences, but he also astonishes them with his ability to master new technology with ease. Jeremy is, by all measures, a typical teenager.

In the first session I’d like to bring some comic strips in and have students discuss the traits that Jeremy exhibits, and then link those to concepts in brain development. For the second session, after a quick review, I’d like participants to engage in some creative work—either drawing their own comic strip or writing out a dialogue for role-playing—that will tackle some of the big challenges that teenagers face. Then during presentations, I’d like the group to be able to suggest some constructive solution to the problem. I have a niece, for example, who suffers from “Etch-a-Sketch” brain (that’s a Zits sight gag), and the way she manages it is by relying heavily on Post-it notes.

One thing that I really want to emphasize is that the teen brain is not all bad. In fact, in can be an asset. To take the metaphor of a computer, the teen brain is like a machine that’s still developing its memory and processing abilities. But the advantage of that is that you can customize it as you wish. Whatever teenagers devote their time to, that is what they will be good at. This has obvious drawbacks, of course (teens are more susceptible to addiction and are quick to anger, and if problems with substance abuse and anger management aren’t addressed, they will persist long into adulthood). But it also indicates a great window of opportunity to learn and master all kinds of skills.

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7 thoughts on “Zits and the Teenage Brain

  1. I think your last point (the positive possibilities of the teen brain) is a great one, and one that never gets expressed. In every article I’ve heard about it, the “teen brain” is always seen as a “mitigating factor” or an explanation of bad behavior, never as a source of possibility and even an advantage (sigh. my poor calcified, overly rational brain). Is there science to support that a teen brain can also be more creative–capable of making connections or avoiding the censure of the superego (sorry, I knew neuroscience and Freud is an odd mix here, but you know what I mean) in ways adult brains can no longer can?

  2. The articles and books I’ve been reading definitely steer clear of psych. terms like “superego,” so the short answer is no, I haven’t seen anything in that vein. From my readings, it seems like teenagers’ solutions are “creative” insofar as they are over-engineered–what Sheryl Feinstein calls “pseudostupidity” or “overcomplication.” (There are some funny Zits strips on this.) I actually think that the creative connection thing comes with good old age.

    • I don’t know, I might beg to differ. I don’t mean “creative” with respect to problem solving, but that creativity that kids and teens have in their writing (which can come across to adults as disconnectedness or even incoherence). How many adults do you know who say they “used to be so creative,” can’t write fiction anymore etc. etc. It seems to me that might be a result of less codified brain pathways, although I am totally pop science BSing.

  3. Or what you see as a lack of creativity in adults could be the result of us talking ourselves out of certain endeavors due to a lack of self-confidence or identification with certain activities. It seems that during the teen years a lot of us decide what we’re “good” or “bad” at, or what’s worth our attention, and then that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy through the use-it-or-lose-it system. Anyone who’s a good artist in their youth and who actually devotes the time and energy to it will only get better. Unless you show me some scientific papers, I’m calling you a hopeless romantic on the teen brain! Please let’s not talk about Dada, but if you dig up anything else on this topic, I’d be eager to hear it.

    • I’m not digging things up, that’s your job! Not a hopeless romantic at all, though–I was just trying to think against the general tendency to talk about the teen brain like a half-baked disaster. Trying to celebrate the cookie dough in the unbaked cookie…or something.

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