Additional Thoughts on the Teenage Brain

The May 10, 2004, issue of Time magazine ran a cover story on the “Secrets of the Teen Brain.” The main premise of this article is that new research suggests that teens have less control over their actions and are less capable of fully rationale behavior than originally thought. Rather than reaching maturity at 12 or 13, scientists now believe that the human brain is not fully developed until age 25.

The area of the brain that is the last to develop is the prefrontal cortex, home of the executive functions of planning, setting priorities, suppressing impulses, and weighing the consequences of one’s actions. This is the part of the brain that eventually will make the teenager more responsible, but it is a long way from being developed when teens first get their driver’s licenses.

Hormones also play a part in teen behavior. Sex hormones are most active in the limbic center, which controls emotions. Teens tend to seek out experiences that cause their passions to run wild. It contributes to the adolescent tendency to thrill-seek. The immaturity of the nucleus accumbens may cause teens to be poorly motivated to seek rewards. They tend to seek situations with high excitement that involve minimal effort. Street racing clearly meets this desire while buckling up and driving conservatively because it may save your life just does not sell.

The significance of this research for traffic safety has yet to be defined. As one scientist pointed out, rental car companies will not let you rent a car until you are 25 years old, yet most States give 16-year-olds licenses to drive. It is not likely that the driving age will be raised to 25, but a case could be made for more extensive research into what is reasonable to expect from teenagers and how the system can be modified to better protect them from themselves.