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Ever wondered why your students care so much about what their classmates think, feel and say? It’s because they have no choice, says Dean Burnett...
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Consider the evidence: countless parents over the years have expressed concern that their adolescent son or daughter has ‘fallen in with a bad crowd’, or become friends with someone who’s ‘a bad influence’, or words to that effect.
Then there’s the clichéd image of crowds of teenage girls screaming and sobbing at the mere sight of the latest pop sensation.
Or what about the way a group of school friends can suddenly, and viciously, turn on a member over some relatively minor infraction?
Based on all this, it would be reasonable to conclude that teenagers are particularly vulnerable to what many term ‘emotional contagion’, where a strong response by one member of a tight-knit group quickly spreads to the others, and soon they’re all angry at or amused by or lusting after the same thing.
How can this happen? How can emotions ‘jump’ from one teenager to another, with such apparent ease? To answer this, we need to look closely at how the human brain works, and adolescent brains in particular.
One important thing to remember is that humans are, at the most fundamental levels, a very social species.
It may not seem that way when you look at the news, but if you consider how many humans are aggressive to others in the context of how many humans there actually are, we’re (statistically) considerably friendlier than most other creatures.
You would never get 30 or so chimps, our closest evolutionary cousins, sat quietly in a room together; it would descend into carnage and effluent throwing very quickly (feel free to insert your own anecdote of a particularly badly-behaved class here…)
One consequence of our sociability is that humans are extremely good – often subconsciously – at reading each other’s emotions and empathising with them via body language, facial expressions, tone, inflection, and more.
Have you ever been angry, scared, or cringing with embarrassment on someone else’s behalf? Even if it’s a story told long after the event?
Brain scanning studies reveal that we show similar activity in the relevant brain regions that process these emotional responses to what you’d expect to see if we were experiencing them ourselves.
Essentially, emotional contagion is a very human phenomenon. ‘Mob mentality’ is a real thing – but then so is the fact that a sense of belonging and acceptance can provide a massive boost to our wellbeing, our mood and our sense of identity.
Or how about the fact uncovered by researchers at University College London that we’re over 30 times more likely to laugh at something when we’re part of a group than when we’re alone?
Emotional contagion is far from uncommon in humans the world over. Why, then, are teenagers seemingly so much more ‘prone’ to it? Or, are they?
While it may be the case that teenagers are hard to deal with, that’s often nothing compared to what the young people themselves are going through, with their suddenly-and-rapidly changing bodies and brains.
When we’re children, particularly in our earliest years, our brains act like giant information sinks, storing practically everything we experience and encounter, in the form of synapses: new connections between neurons, the brain cells that do all the sensation, cognition and control.
Some estimates claim that a young child’s brain is forming a million new connections every second. That’s a lot of information being absorbed, but then, being a functional human requires it.
However, the functioning of the human brain is not just a matter of storage, it’s about efficiency, and how effectively its myriad parts can communicate and collaborate to create our rich and detailed existence.
Adolescence is the period when our brains essentially stop absorbing and start organising.
Childhood is sort of like when the brain says, “what am I supposed to be doing?”, while adolescence is when it says “I know what I’m meant to be doing, but how do I best do it?”
During adolescence, we undergo a process called ‘pruning’, which is exactly how it sounds.
All those connections in our brains that we’ve never used more than once, they’re dispensed with and removed, and the resources that would have gone to them are diverted to more important things.
The adolescent brain actually has considerably fewer connections than a child’s, but it’s much better at actually utilising the information it has stored.
As well as all the extra sleep this process requires (often denied to adolescents when they need it, which also makes them more stressed and prone to emotional outbursts), the downside is that it’s somewhat ‘uneven’.
The maturation of all our vital brain regions is ongoing through our teenage years (and beyond), but the brain is not one homogenous lump, and different parts mature at different times.
As a rule of thumb, the more complex and ‘newly evolved’ a region of the brain is, the longer it takes to mature. Unfortunately for adolescents, this means the areas that govern emotions and more primal, primitive yearnings (like those that control sensation seeking and a need for approval) such as the deeply-embedded limbic system, mature faster than areas like the frontal lobe that underpin our logical, rational selves and allow us to control our impulses.
As a result, teenagers will be more impressionable, and vulnerable to the emotional influence of others around them – who are almost invariably also teenagers, dealing with their own emotional issues.
And it’s actually believed to be an evolutionarily useful thing, because for social, tribal animals, a tendency for the young and newly-sexually-mature members to tend to reject their parents and authority figures and seek out new experiences and mates further afield is very good for the species.
Sticking to your own tight-knit family group long-term is a recipe for genetic stagnation, or worse.
Basically, then, evolution and neuroscience have seemingly decided that teenagers are far more emotionally in tune with each other and less able to control their emotions than adults.
They are this way because they need to be. It doesn’t make teaching them any easier… but it might help to remember that it’s not exactly a cakewalk for them, either.
Dean Burnett is a doctor of neuroscience, bestselling author, blogger, and sometimes comedian, based in Cardiff. His new book, The Happy Brain, is available from May 3rd 2018 (Faber and Faber, £12.99 rrp)
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