Why do teenagers act the way they do?

As a teacher I witness every day the strange thought processes teenagers have. We’ve learned from recent research that the human brain undergoes immense changes during adolescence, which are often not finished until the mid-20s. But why does the brain goes through such changes in adolescence? Scientists think it may have to do with our evolutionary past. The risks teenagers take are in some ways very adaptive.

Let’s start with the teen’s love of the thrill. We all like new and exciting things, but we never value them more highly than we do during adolescence. Here we hit a high in what behavioral scientists call sensation seeking: the hunt for the neural buzz, the jolt of the unusual or unexpected.

Seeking sensation isn’t necessarily impulsive. You might plan a sensation-seeking experience—a skydive or a fast drive—quite deliberately. Impulsivity generally drops throughout life, starting at about age 10, but this love of the thrill peaks at around age 15. And although sensation seeking can lead to dangerous behaviors, it can also generate positive ones: The urge to meet more people, for instance, can create a wider circle of friends, which generally makes us healthier, happier, safer, and more successful. Learn more here.

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