See Inside August/September 2006

The Teen Brain, Hard at Work

Under challenging conditions, adolescents may assess and react less efficiently than adults

It is late in the evening rush hour, typical stop-and-go traffic. Finally, there is a break; the tightly packed group around you is soon cruising together at 55 mph. Suddenly, you see brake lights flare up ahead. As you prepare to brake, you glance in the rearview mirror and see an alarming sight--a car closing way too fast on your rear fender. The teenage driver looks panicked, one hand clutching the steering wheel, the other hand clenching a cell phone. You brace for the terrible impact...

We are quick to blame adolescents for getting themselves into predicaments that adults believe could be easily avoided. But recent research indicates that simple irresponsibility may not be the full explanation. When teenagers perform certain tasks, their prefrontal cortex, which handles decision making, is working much harder than the same region in adults facing the same circumstances. The teen brain also makes less use of other regions that could help out. Under challenging conditions, adolescents may assess and react less efficiently than adults.

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