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Harry Potter, Bilbo Baggins, and the Mysteries of the Teenage Brain

Harry Potter, Bilbo Baggins, and the Mysteries of the Teenage Brain

It's official: we've learned more about teen biology in the past week than in the entire rest of our lives! First came the news that teenagers are sleepy little vampire caterpillars who aren't being served by early school start times; now, there's this great piece from io9 titled, oh-so-intriguingly, Why Teenage Brains Are Different From Everyone Else's.

Disappointing spoiler: the reason is not, "because they are made entirely of pizza." But the article—which is oh-so-appropriately illustrated with a photo of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and particularly Raphael, who had more emo angst inside of him than an entire class of high school sophomores combined—is fascinating, and examines the results of several studies aimed at understanding the teenage brain. Unlike so much of what gets written about teens, i.e., pieces that trade in frankly offensive stereotypes (if we have to hear that inane oversimplification about teens being "all gas and no brakes" one more time, we are going to go FULL WOOLLY MAMMOTH), this piece sticks to exploring known facts about the process by which a person's brain changes over the years, and how that internal biology translates to outward behavior. From the article:

The frontal lobes in particular are among the last areas of the brain to mature—the part of the brain responsible for executive functions like planning, attention, motivation, working memory, and impulse control.

As a result of ongoing neuromaturation, the teenage brain exhibits a set of consistently identifiable tendencies (at the risk of overgeneralizing, of course) as they relate to the maturity of judgement. There are three in particular worth highlighting:

  • Increased novelty seeking
  • Increased risk taking
  • Increased desire to affiliate and interact with peers

The most interesting difference between a mature brain and an immature one? A mature brain actually has fewer neural pathways connecting its various regions. As you get older, your brain starts trimming its own fat, so to speak, getting rid of pathways you don't use in order to make it easier for information to zip across the ones you do. The result: a mature brain processes information more effectively, and can make informed decisions more quickly, whereas a younger brain, which takes longer to gather info from all its regions in order to feed the decision-making process, doesn't always make connections rapidly enough to yield thoughtful choices in the heat of the moment.

Rallying cry:

This all may explain, for instance, why the middle-aged Bilbo Baggins is able to cunningly, carefully flatter a dragon into revealing its crucial weakness, whereas the teenaged characters in Harry Potter don't think twice about the outrageously impractical move of leaping onto a dragon's back and riding it off into the sunset. (Also of interest: teenage brains are wired to seek both immediate gratification—in the form of adrenaline-spiking, risk-taking behavior—as well as peer approval, which means that teens are more likely do crazy things when they know that other teenagers are watching… and which might explain why even the diligent, rule-following Hermione ended up brewing illegal polyjuice potion in a bathroom during her second* year at Hogwarts. OMG PEER PRESSURE.)

Of course, these are only generalized conclusions based on scientific studies; not every teenager will end up being a thrill-seeking ball of angst with no impulse control, anymore than every adult is a suit-wearing office drone whose only joy in life is reading dry biographies of the Prime Minister of England. When teenagers do successfully resist their biological imperative to act without thinking, their brain activity is pretty much indistinguishable from that of a grown-ass adult. But if you succumb to your inner teen stereotype, and you do end up making a dumb, impulse-driven decision? Nature has seen fit to protect you with more responsive muscles and a stronger immune system—because if you're going to go robbing a goblin bank and then make your getaway on dragonback, nature would prefer you survived.

Are you a ninja turtle with poor impulse control? A Bilbo Baggins in the body of a Hogwarts student?

*Thanks MinervaLongbottom for the correction!

[via i09]

Topics: Life
Tags: science, teenage mutant ninja turtles, biology, teenagers, brains, psychology, neuropsychology, risk-seeking

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About the Author

Kat Rosenfield is a writer, illustrator, advice columnist, YA author, and enthusiastic licker of that plastic liner that comes inside a box of Cheez-Its. She loves zombies and cats. She hates zombie cats. Follow her on Twitter or Tumblr @katrosenfield.

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