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Questions about the brain – 1

Yesterday, I announced the winners of the New Blame My Brain competition. And I said I’d answer the questions. So I am.

The winning questions were posed by the Upper 4 pupils of Queen Anne’s School Caversham. Here are their questions and my answers:

1. Why do teenagers tend to form groups, complete with visible signs of membership? (and why does this seem particularly a thing for girls with ‘cliques’?)

My explanation for this is that adolescence is about the process of moving away from the secure (ideally) and familiar family unit towards the new groups that we need to belong to as independent adults. Also, humans are social animals, generally working in groups. (Humans as a whole do better when they work cooperatively, as a species, though some prefer to be alone and I’m not suggesting that working alone is a bad thing.) So, a younger child lives in the safety of a family group, and has little control, making no decisions and setting no rules; but adults have to have control over themselves, make decisions and rules and work within groups of people not related to them and therefore not necessarily caring so much about them. Adolescence is about moving from child to adulthood in that way. So, the clique thing is about belonging to a group; it’s about loyalty to each other (and not to people outside the group); it’s about security and strength. The visible signs are the ways that people mark themselves as part of a group.

Those markings are also part of experimenting with who you are and what you like, moving away from your parents’ tastes.

As for your question about girls, I’m not sure. In fact, I’m not sure I agree. I think boys do the same kind of thing, perhaps less with fashion and more with allegiance to sports teams or products. If girls do it more it’s possibly because females of all ages tend (huge generalisation!) to be more social and to need groups for security.

2. Sometimes I find that fidgeting, doodling or having something to fiddle with actually helps me concentrate. How is this is explained by what’s going on in the brain?

Yes, some people find this (and others don’t.) There’s some evidence that boys more often have a need to fidget; and there’s some research about people with ADHD being much better able to concentrate if they can fidget and move about. I don’t think we know why but it may be that in some people the act of sitting still is an effort that takes away ability to focus on what we want to focus on. In some way, fiddling or doodling do allow some people to focus their brain better. One thing’s for certain: if it works for you, you should do it (but try to find a way that doesn’t annoy the people near you!)

3. Why do adolescents tend to think mostly about themselves?

Actually, I think most people of all ages think mostly about themselves! And younger children certainly do. Parents don’t – parents spend far too much time worrying about their teenagers and children!

But, you are also right that teenagers seem to be extra self-focused. I think there are several reasons:

  1. See my answer to the first question – you are starting to have to look out for yourselves and you are finding out who you are.
  2. You are less protected now than you were, and your parents won’t do everything for you so you have to think about yourselves.
  3. Teenagers are very very self-conscious and get more embarrassed by things than other age groups. (Researchers have shown teenagers using different parts of the brain when thinking about embarrassing things.)
  4. Life can be very high-pressure for teenagers and I think when most of us are under pressure we are not so good at thinking of others.
  5. The emotional centre of the teenage brain is very well developed and sometimes I think the emotions are overwhelming, without the reasoning power to control them and to say, “Hold on – life is not that unfair and you aren’t the only person on the planet.” Mind you, people of all ages do that, too.
  6. Teenagers are less good at reading emotions in other people’s faces, so sometimes you might think everyone is angry with you when they aren’t. And that makes you angry, as though the world is against you.

But I also think teenagers do think of other people – they raise a lot of money for charity, for example.

4. What is going on in the brain that makes adolescents so irritated by their parents’ concerns and/or lack of concern?

Again, it’s partly what I said for the answer to your first question – adolescence is ALL about moving away from parental and adult control and protection. It’s about no longer being dependent and becoming independent. You couldn’t do that in one week – there needs to be a process of moving away, breaking away, of disagreeing with your parents and testing their views and testing your own.

So, when parents worry or seem to nag (or even actually nag!) that is VERY annoying for teenagers, who are maybe trying to work things out and may be just about to do whatever it is. Also, teenagers don’t like to be patronised – nor dies anyone – and that’s sometimes what concern feels like. Teenagers can’t understand parents but parents can understand teenagers – which can actually be quite irritating for teenagers! So, there’s nippy conflict a lot of the time as you have adults sparring with nearly-adults. The adults worry (partly because they may remember what they were like but mostly because they really really care and worry) but teenagers are trying to take risks and be bold and struggle to survive and be strong.

Also, parents have a bad habit (I know, because this is what I did) of expressing their worries at the WRONG TIME – eg just when the teenager is settling down to a favourite TV programme.

So, caring too much or caring not enough are both things that annoy teenagers, because of the need to break away and become independent but also because of how hard and stressful that can be.

5. Why do different people find different revision techniques more effective?

Easy! Because people’s brains just are different! They are the same in hundreds of ways but also different in hundreds of ways.

Thanks for your great questions and well done! Next, I’ll be answering the questions of Glenalmond College. Over the next few weeks I will answer at least one question from all the school who entered.

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