Teens take big risks because of memory loss — just tell your mom your brain made you do it
Mapping the brain is a super hard science task that even the smartest scientists haven’t fully figured out yet. We don’t totally know how or why things happen in the noggin, but we learn more all the time. Recently, scientists at the University of Oregon found one more piece of the puzzle, specifically in regard to teenage brains!
According to the study, there is a correlation between teen decision making and the strength of your working memory. What’s working memory, you ask? Atika Khurana, lead scientist in this study, says it’s basically the “ability to keep information in mind while making decisions.” The teens who were found to have weaker working memory were more likely to have sex and more likely to have it younger, as well as make other risky decisions. So, for example, remembering all of the information you’ve learned about the dangers of unprotected sex in the moment of making a decision about having sex at a party might be reeeeaally hard.
This information gives us a new perspective on how we think about decisions we make as teens. There is no correlation between “age, socio-economic status and gender” and how strong your working memory is — you are who you are, regardless of outside factors! While educational programs and a safe space to talk about sex can help some teenagers to make more thought-through choices, it doesn’t matter if you “don’t have the cognitive capacity to actually use that information and apply it,” Khurana says. That is, bad decisions aren’t always totally made with disregard to what you’ve been told — it’s more like, you can’t process what you’ve been told.
Other studies have shown that there are other brain struggles in the way of teenagers making clear and good decisisons. For example, the brain’s frontal lobe (its decision-making powerhouse) is not fully formed until a person’s mid-twenties, according to Harvard researchers. The National Institute of Mental Health has a laundry list of the emotional and hormonal changes that teenagers go through and that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how those brain changes can affect decision-making.
Whew. That’s a lot stacked against the teenage brain! Look, even though teens might not act in the most logical way all the time, there are some advantages to being decisionally-impaired. Teenagers take big risks and feel things more deeply than grown-ups do. That can lead to a lot of melodramatic diary entries (hello, everything I ever wrote in high school), but it can also lead to moments of soaring romance and desperate joy. The love and pain you feel as a teenager is the kind of deeply-felt emotion you chase for the rest of your life, and those feelings don’t come without a few bad decisions along the way. Why else would YA novels be some of the most best-selling books in the world, even to adults? The Hunger Games series and the Harry Potter novels aren’t just popular because of the magical worlds they create. It’s the freedom, danger, and unpredictability of teenage life that draws us in, even and especially once we’ve grown into boring adult-brain that usually remembers when we need milk. Take that, science.
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