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The Teenage Brain: A Masterpiece Under Construction

Updated: Apr 18, 2021

By Cindy Ma

The teenage years have always been known as the years of tyrant and rebellion, talking back to your parents and making reckless decisions. There are heavy misconceptions as to why teenagers act the way they act. Some of these things are out of our control because the human brain is an ever-changing organ -- especially in the teenage years -- that will continue to develop until about the mid-20s. This serves as both a hindrance and benefit to teenagers. Due to experiments conducted by neuroscientists, there is now a clearer understanding of the teenage brain than there has been ever before.

As an adult, the brain is able to make rational decisions, while the teenage brain lacks the development to do the same. During the teenage years, the brain’s frontal lobe -- responsible for decision making -- is not fully formed, therefore relying on the amygdala, the brain’s emotional processing center. The dependence on the amygdala causes teens to misinterpret social cues, lack the ability to control impulses, and have a heightened possibility of engaging in self-destructive behavior.

The hypersensitive emotional sector of the teenage brain will create a heightened awareness of a teen’s presence in a social setting while lacking the processors of social cues. This ultimately leads to the inevitable self-consciousness and self-esteem issues most teens will face in social situations. Because the teenage brain has more trouble recognizing emotions on strangers and social cues, it will hinder the way they interact with people, and react to/process social events, ultimately leading to missed opportunities. Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, a neuropsychologist, conducted an experiment on a group of adolescents aged 10-18 comparing how they process emotions compared to adults. They were shown pictures of adult faces and asked to identify the emotions they portrayed. The adults got the emotions right while teens misinterpreted their emotions. Through MRI imaging, the researchers were able to see how teens used different areas of their brains as compared to adults. The amygdala lit up for teens while the frontal cortex lit up in adults. The amygdala guides instinctual reactions or better known as “gut reactions” used by teens, in comparison to the frontal cortex that uses reasoning and planning (Spinks). This area of the teenage brain is not fully formed yet, resulting in the inability to accurately recognize emotions portrayed by those around them.

With socializing being a crucial part of the adolescent stage of life, it becomes hard for teenagers to feel secure in social interactions which come with awkwardness, social anxiety, and hyper-awareness of each social interaction they have. There is pressure to conform to those around you in order to not stand out, drawing more attention to yourself than desired. As the prefrontal cortex is developing, teens recognize some of the flaws of how adults act, making them feel superior as they are able to recognize it. This means that they are more prone to not ask for help when they need it. Teenagers become independent from their parents and want to figure things out on their own. They do not want to lose their newfound independence, which in return will cause them to try and solve problems they cannot on their own. The brain synthesizes this information into ideals that teens want to exercise, like talking back to their parents or developing a superiority complex. This makes for much more irrational decisions because they do not want the input of other people, especially adults, ultimately causing more harm than good to adolescents. When adults try to control these behaviors in teens, they exhibit the action-reaction behaviors. Teenagers will have a heightened reaction to each action, therefore, acting out on punishments that parents will make restricting their teens. When parents constantly disapprove of their children, they will act on their hurt as resentment and rebellion.

The developing brain is more susceptible to impulse which can be both a good and bad thing for teenagers. Teenagers are more likely to experience impulse and intrusive thoughts as they are reliant on their emotional center of the brain. They can exert symptoms of OCD such as the bombardment of unwanted thoughts, anxiety, and distress. Most will not act on the intrusive thoughts, but will not know how to clearly identify and process them. As the brain continues to develop, it can be estimated that about 40% of individuals who develop OCD in childhood will recover from the disorder by adulthood (TeenMentalHealth).

In comparison to adults, teenagers deal with a substantially higher amount of emotions rather than logic. The lack of balance between the two will result in a misunderstanding between conscious decision-making and harmful behaviors. Though, impulsive behavior can also be a positive type of reinforcement for teenagers. The limbic system, which is responsible for gratification and emotions, is in conflict with the frontal cortex while it is developing, causing teenagers to value instant gratification over the long term. By comparing the imbalance between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, one can see that the limited utility of the prefrontal cortex allows adolescents to experience things that they would be hesitant to do later in life. Not only does this build experience, but also the maturity that will prove to be beneficial later on. The impulsiveness of doing new and exciting things will pose some risks for teenagers, but it will also spark passion and ambition that will motivate them through the hardest parts of their lives.

On the bright side, the hyperactive synapses in the teenage brain allow for more curiosity, faster learning, and the confidence to expand their comfort zones. The brain is always forming new pathways that need constant stimulation. It creates more of an incentive to learn and explore new topics. Due to the lack of life experiences, the teenage brain needs more stimulation achieved by learning and experiencing new things. In brain development, the synapses in the brain build at a much faster pace than a fully developed brain allowing it to learn new things faster.

This constant learning benefits their abilities to pick up new things much quicker. and in return be able to use those as a judgment in future decisions. These all begin to build the teenage brain to be more mature and logical. Teenagers will also find more joy in rewards such as words of affirmation, which will build their confidence and lead them to explore more things. The combination of a hypersensitive reward center and the ability to learn and adapt to new things give teenagers more opportunities to explore their boundaries to their advantage.

Ultimately, the teenage brain is simply under construction.

Written by writer Cindy Ma


Brookshire, Bethany. “Teen Brains May Have an Advantage - Better Learning.” Science News for Students, 3 Dec. 2019,

Messinger, Hannah. Learning and the Teen Brain: Driving, SATs, and Addiction? – PR News,

News, HealthDay. “Are Teen Brains Hyper-Wired for Rewards?” HealthDay, Consumer Health News | HealthDay, 18 Nov. 2020,

Powell, Kendall. “How Does the Teenage Brain Work?” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 23 Aug. 2006,

Spinks, Sarah. “Work In Progress - One Reason Teens Respond Differently To The World | Inside The Teenage Brain | FRONTLINE.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service,

Spinks, Sarah. “Work In Progress - One Reason Teens Respond Differently To The World | Inside The Teenage Brain | FRONTLINE.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service,

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