As Strauch reveals, scientists now recognise that there is a biological component to why teenagers are so likely to slam the door and hide out in their rooms at the least provocation. There is a reason they are alternatively articulate and idealistic one moment, and incoherent and self-centered the next, or like to remain cocooned in their beds till noon, or are so attracted to risk and thrills, to drugs and alcohol and high speeds. And it's not just hormones. New studies of ordinary teenagers from around the world show that far from stopping growing at seven or eleven, the brain undergoes a complete rewiring in adolescence, particularly the frontal cortex, the part of the brain that governs logic and helps to control our emotions. Why Are They So Weird? offers a well-informed and entertaining roadmap to that exhilarating, infuriating and sometimes terrifying time.
Neuroscience has come up with evidence that the teenage brain is not yet fully developed. Over a span of roughly 10 to 12 years, the adolescent brain goes through a series of shifts transforming it from child to adult. Although the research is in its infancy it's already upsetting long-held views that raging hormones are to blame for weird teenage behaviour. Barbara Strauch, Health and Medical Science editor for the New York Times, has scoured the scientific journals to understand why many teenagers sleep till noon, have sullen moods and often indulge in senseless risk-taking or alcohol and drug abuse. Written in an easy, discursive style, the book bulges with wild and wacky teenage behaviours, setting sympathetic anecdotal illustrations alongside the scientific studies. A ten-year scanning programme of the brains of children and teenagers suggests that the frontal lobes of the brain that help us to resist impulses are still under construction. Teenagers experience strong drives but lack the inhibitory brain power to go with them. Their brains are slowly being enveloped in myelin, which affects both the hippocampus involved with memory retrieval and the cingulate gyrus involved in emotions. So the connections between gut reactions and intelligent responses may be irregular. Girls' brains myelinate faster than boys, ensuring that they reach emotional maturity first. ( A discovery that will be no surprise to TV documentary makers who recently noted that a group of 11-year-old boys left alone in a house for several days trashed it, while a group of 11-year-old girls kept it clean and tidy!) The well-known phenomenon of staying up into the early hours and not getting out of bed till noon may be due to the fact that teenagers start to secrete melatonin up to two hours later than when they were younger. Difficulties with the neurotransmitter dopamine carrying messages between the cells associated with reward and pleasure indicate that some teenagers may be genetically primed to embrace risk-taking, alcohol and drug abuse. Strauch doesn't get carried away by the new findings, continually emphasizing that many of the studies are far from definitive. Neuroscience is looking for a baseline, a normal range that will allow it to establish deviations. It also has to be recognized that in the interpretation of behaviour, neuroscience is just one element of the 'anthropological-psychological-sociological and far-from clear soup'. Evidence that the teenage brain is still a work in progress may make us a bit more forgiving, suggests Strauch. On the other hand it might totally perplex readers of the older generation who left school and home at 14 and went off to make their way in the world! (Kirkus UK)