The missing years in policymaking
Taking advantage of the malleability of the adolescent brain could be one of the most important policy decisions of any government
How well do we manage the 243 million adolescent Indians (10-19-year-olds), the biggest adolescent population in the world?
Although adolescents are considered to be in the healthiest phase of their lives, they are vulnerable to many social problems like teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, substance abuse, etc. Seventy five percent of mental illnesses including depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorders start by the age of 24.
According to the Lancet commission on adolescent health and well-being, suicides followed by road accidents take away the lives of most adolescents in India. The commission’s lead author, George Patton, professor at the University of Melbourne, said the findings should be a “wake-up call for new investment in the largest generation of adolescents in the world’s history”.
The future of any country is dependent on helping its youth to effectively navigate adolescence while avoiding behavioural problems with life-long consequences. Easier said than done.
Aristotle said “the young are heated by nature as drunken men by wine”. There are many who consider adolescents, with their tantrums and mood swings, as impossible to handle, a lost cause. There are even neuroscientists who have attributed the risky, wayward behaviour of adolescents as the product of a brain that is somehow compromised.
Recent research has proven otherwise. According to professor Jay N. Giedd at the University of California, San Diego, “the teen brain is not defective. It is not a half-baked adult brain, either. It has been forged by evolution to function differently from that of a child or an adult”. By the age of 6, the human brain has reached 90% of its full size. But as humans move into adolescence, the brain undergoes extensive rewiring, a sort of system upgrade.
The axons in the adolescent brain get more insulated with myelin, leading to a 100-fold increase in the transmission speed of brain impulses. Dendrites, the part of the neurons that receive information, become twiggier. Synapses, the connections between the axon of one neuron and the dendrite of another neuron, become stronger. Synapses that are not in use are pruned away. In the process the brain becomes a faster, more sophisticated organ with a 3,000-fold increase in computational bandwidth.
This process of making the brain more efficient begins at the brain stem, at the back of the head. It takes several years for the entire brain to complete this process.
The limbic region of the brain that is involved in driving emotions and seeking rewards is fully active by the time a child hits puberty at the age of 10-12. But the prefrontal cortex, the front portion of the brain that is involved in controlling impulsive behaviours, does not reach its maturity until the age of 25.
This developmental mismatch between two critical parts of the brain is one of the significant reasons as to why adolescents indulge in what appears to be risky, reckless behaviours.
Brain studies throw up further insights about the risky behaviours of adolescents. Adolescents take more risk not because they don’t understand the dangers involved in an act or have downgraded the risk involved, but because they gave more weightage to the rewards involved in the act. In any situation which involves both risk and reward, adolescents value the reward more than what adults in the same situation would seek.
The type of reward also matters. According to Laurence Steinberg of Temple University, when teens are in an “emotionally cool” situation of an empty room, they take risk at about the same rates as adults do. But in the presence of friends in the room, the teen would take twice as many risks. For adults, the presence of friends in the room did not make any difference.
This difference is the combined result of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that primes and fires the reward circuits in the brain, and oxytocin, a neural hormone that makes social connections more rewarding. Changes in oxytocin receptors in the brain around puberty lead to increased awareness of others’ opinions and the tendency for “imaginary audience” behaviours.
Neuroscience is clearly establishing that the risky, sensation-seeking adolescent behaviour is not a sign of cognitive or emotional problems. It is the result of a natural brain development process that equips an adolescent to adopt the skills and knowledge required to grow into an adult and face the complexities of the world. Exasperated parents and policymakers would do well to keep this in mind.
Across cultures, adolescence is time when a human being either becomes a soldier or a terrorist, a productive citizen or an unproductive one. All these studies also suggest that adolescence is a time when the human brain is at a high level of plasticity, and so most malleable. How to take advantage of the malleability of the adolescent brain could be one of the most important policy decisions of any government.
In order to channel the passion, the energy and the sensation-seeking behaviour of the largest adolescent cohort in the world, one significant step that the Union government could take is having a separate ministry for adolescent development. The ministry can take the lead in developing a cogent set of policies, on education, on health, and on justice, informed by a deeper understanding of adolescent behaviour. This no doubt will have one of the strongest influences in making India a superpower to reckon with.
Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm.