Recently I did a Live Online Q&A with some delightful, clever, hard-working Y9 girls from Bedford Girls’ School. I always feel bad when I don’t answer EVERY question so I asked Mrs Lang, their teacher, to send me the ones I didn’t answer. And here I am, with rather more succinct answers than I’d have managed to give live!
In advance they had picked three topics – teenage brains, friendship and peer pressure and body image. The idea was that I’d give a mini-talk on each and then they’d ask their questions. Beforehand, they’d watched a short video about my work and messages, so they knew I was on side and what my level of expertise was, and they had time to discuss what they wanted to ask. I’d also pointed out that they’d need to listen really carefully and be prepared to adapt what they asked, in case I had already answered it. So this was a proper conversation.
I SO enjoyed talking to them all!
The questions I didn’t answer
Do you know why brains look how they do?
There are two main things you might mean: why are brains the shape they are and why are they so wrinkly? They are the shape they are mainly because they have to fit in our skull and the front lower quarter of our skull can’t have brain in it because it has our nose structures, jaw, throat and eyes – all the physical structures of our face. And our skulls are restricted in size because if they were any bigger they couldn’t fit through a woman’s pelvis during birth!
And a human brain is very wrinkly compared to most other mammals because our cortex – the outer layer – is so big and yet it needs to fit inside our small skull. So if you imagine you have a big piece of paper and you have to make it fit inside a cup, you’d do it by squashing the paper up and it would be all wrinkly.
Why does gender make the teenage brain react the way it does?
Hmmm, tricky one. Two ways to tackle this. First, leave teenage out of it: do we agree that brains different according to gender? There’s a lot of disagreement and discussion about this and I’d need a lot longer thn I have to explain my exact position. My brief view is they are different (all mammals have sex differences reflected in behaviour and brain biology so how could humans not?) but that only some of that difference is about how we’re born and much more of it is about all our experiences and “environment”. (Not environment as in climate etc but as in everything that affects you as you grow up, from even before you were born.)
Second, bringing teenage back into it, I think you are asking whether there are ways that teenage brains react differently according to what gender a teenager is. One very big thing that affects us is hormones and the sex hormones kick in and increase hugely during puberty. These hormones are testosterone, which boys and men usually have more of, and oestrogen, which girls and women usually have more of. People vary in the amounts they have and ow they affect them.
In the animal world (which humans are part of) these hormones drive physical changes that enable males and females to reproduce. That is a strong biological drive which ensures the survival of the species. But in humans, whose brains and lives are so complicated, this also brings psychological changes in terms of behaviours, desires, needs.
So, I don’t really think gender makes a teenage brain behave in particular ways: I think the brain – and the teenage brain – drives gender behaviours, whether through hormones, or social environment or personality or whatever.
When we feel sad … how does my brain make me feel like that and why does it make me feel like I’m drowning? What part of the brain does that? I don’t want to feel sad so why would the brain do that? Same for feeling angry?
Note: I don’t know if this is about you or not so I’m going to address my answer to anyone who feels like this. Please pass this message to anyone who needs it.
I’m so sorry you feel so sad sometimes. Although it’s horrible at the time, sadness is a normal human emotion and not something to be afraid of. Only an uncaring, insensitive person never feels sad. But feeling sad a lot or every day is something to get help for – and there is help out there. Talk to a teacher, a parent or any trusted person and they can help you get help. You do not have to feel so sad so often! (Same with anger.)
But, to answer your questions: the part of your brain that generates sadness and anger (and all emotions) is your Limbic system, which is really lots of parts. It generates emotional responses and it does this without you asking it to. There are two things you can do about it and you need to do both of them: 1. Give your limbic system lots of positive emotions. For example, take opportunities to have fun with friends, to read an uplifting book, to watch a funny film, to have exercise. (Physical exercise is GREAT for boosting the Limbic system – but don’t overdo it.) 2. Use your “prefrontal cortex” or “control centre” to talk yourself into a steadier, better mood. Tell yourself that sadness is natural, that there are things you can do about it, that you’re not alone. Your prefrontal cortex is logical, steady, controlled: give it a job to do!
Why does it make you feel you’re drowning? You’ve just done a very human thing: used beautiful words to express yourself. I can’t tell you why it feels like this but I can tell you that your ability to express yourself will always help you. You could try writing poetry or stories to express your emotions. This often helps.
I know you don’t want to feel sad. So why does our brain make us feel like that? Well, brains are not perfect. But they are brilliant. And one of the best things about sadness is when it lifts and disappears. You wouldn’t love the wonderful moments so much if you never felt low sometimes. Climbing up a hill is hard but if we don’t climb up hills we don’t get the joy of running down.
I hope you don’t feel too sad for too long. I hope you find lots of sunny moments, too. Do ask for help any time you need it
Is overthinking part of our neurons growing?
Not really. But it does seem that over-thinking can begin during teenage years, just at the time when all that extra growth of neural connections is happening.
But really, over-thinking is just something some people are susceptible to. I am one of them! I think overthinking makes me a kind, sensitive person who will go the extra mile to do the right thing and make the right decision. It’s often painful and sometimes makes me lose sleep but I would not change it.
I have learnt to keep it a bit under control, though. If you need help with over-thinking, talk to a trusted adult. But it is very very commons and probably more at your age than others.
Why are our brains more susceptible to mental health disorders?
This is very much connected to the last answer. We don’t know why many teenagers develop mental health problems when they didn’t have them as younger children. It could be because of the brain upheaval, or all the changes going on inside and outside them, social pressures, a growing sense of insecurity about the future, exam and other achievement pressures, or what. But we just need to be here for you to help you avoid the problems.
The important thing to know is looking after your mental health and wellbeing can really help you not suffer illness.
Do we need to use every part the brain enough and if we don’t we have a physical problem and the brain won’t not grow or develop properly?
It’s definitely good to use all areas of the brain by doing lots of different activities but if you don’t do a particular set of activities this does not harm your development.
Why does your brain go crazy when having periods (mood swings)?
Oestrogen levels rise and fall sharply according to where each girl or woman is on their menstrual cycle and oestrogen does affect mood. It doesn’t make a big difference for all women and girls, though. Some are lucky! And for many girls, this will settle down as they go into adulthood. But if you do suffer badly, definitely think about seeing a GP as there are ways they can help.
Have you worked with people who have ADHD? If so what were you studying? I was wondering what part of the brain it affected
I haven’t worked with people with ADHD or studied it in great detail. I wrote a bit about it in Exam Attack. In terms of what part of the brain was affected: I believe it would be in the working of the prefrontal cortex, which is the control centre, the part that (amongst other things) helps us focus on a task when there are other distractions. There’s a case for saying that ADHD brains are brilliant ones because being distractable is a good thing for any animal (to keep it safe from prey) but obviously for humans in the modern world, especially at school, it’s a challenge because we are supposed to focus!
Friendships and peer pressure
Is peer pressure something that all species have?
Interesting question! I think not in the sense that we mean it in humans. But other animals do imitate those around them and adolescent rats and monkeys (for example) do hang out with their own age group and do take more risks, so maybe! Other species certainly do things to make them part of a group though, such as grooming each other and playing together. But in humans it’s a lot more obvious to detect and more complicated.
Is peer pressure a bad thing? Are there any scenarios where you think peer pressure is appropriate?
I’m really glad you asked that. Peer pressure it’s not by itself a bad thing: it’s there to help us build bonds and connections and that’s important and positive. And peer pressure can definitely make us do good things. If the people around you are caring, decent people with good social values, you’ll tend to find it easier to be like that, too. If the group you’re in or connected to take bad risks, peer pressure can be a bad thing, but if the group shows decent, inspiring behaviours, that’s wonderful. One of the problems for parents is that they can’t control who you are friends with: but maybe you can. If you can make good friendship choices, your life will be easier and more positive and peer pressure can help you then.
How do we distinguish between what we want to do or what we’re feeling pressured to do?
I think we look inside ourselves and start to question our motives and feelings about the action. Most things are not black/white but more complex than that but if we stop and think (using our prefrontal cortex!) I think we willknow: is this something I really do want to do, for good reasons, or am I being pushed into something I not only don’t want to do but shouldn’t? Remember: sometimes pressure is good. Sometimes we need it to have the courage to do the right but difficult thing.
Could social media affect a child’s brain if they were exposed to it as much as a teenager might be?
Yes, it could but it’s hard to measure. But I don’t think it’s very helpful/useful to think about it affecting a brain but instead think about how it affects how you feel and your work, friendships, stress, life, performance, concentration etc. Social media can be wonderful and useful and it can be distressing and problematic. It’s really complicated but the bottom line is: what effect do you feel it is having? And I think it can affect all ages, including adults. Younger children can have more problems than you because they understand less; but you could have more problems than them because you care and worry more and some worse things can happen.
Why is it that when someone is embarrassed first but even after some time after the incident with positive talks after it does not have much effect on how you feel?
Well spotted!! It’s because emotions always become less raw, more manageable and memories fade. It’s a very important lesson to learn. Next time you’re feeling really sand, angry, ashamed, embarrassed or whatever, remind yourself that soon you won’t feel so bad!
And now I’m exhausted! Girls, thank you so much for your questions! I hope you are settling back into school and things get back to normal soon. Take care of your wellbeing and your brain will take care of you. And any time things feels too tough, talk to someone you trust.
Schools, if you’d like to book a Live Online Q&A (or a variation of it), do get in touch. But do book in good time as I tend to be booked many months ahead.