These days, a hot topic for parents: teen brain development. Books have been written about it. Nearly every magazine that a parent might read, including National Geographic, has had an article about it. I have written extensively about it.
But in all this writing – even in my own – something basic has remained vague. I’m referring to the phrase, “brain development,” and what is meant by it. If parents are to take all the advice and warnings seriously, they need be clear about what’s going on.
Because there are three types of brain development, and they happen in three different stages of human life. Only one of these stages relates to the teen brain. To make these distinctions, I’ll use the digital computer as an analogy – hardware, software and data.
STAGE #1 – BABY – Building the HARDWARE. The first stage happens while the baby is still in the mother’s womb. For nine months, the growing embryo slowly matures into a human child. Starting with a single cell, after nine months the baby’s brain has segmented itself into the many brain areas and has over 100 billion brain cells. Neither the baby nor the mother gets involved in this construction, except to maintain a healthy, undisturbed environment in the womb – and to be patient. At birth, none of these brain cells are wired together yet. The baby has the basic hardware, but neither the software nor the data.
STAGE #2 - CHILD – Programming basic SOFTWARE. In phases throughout early life, the child programs the many areas of his brain. Unlike computer software, which is an off-the-shelf package purchased and downloaded to the computer’s hardware, the child has to build the program himself. He has to wire his own brain. This happens when the child interacts with his world and exercises the basic functions. This activity causes the brain cells to connect into circuits. Not every child gets involved in the same activities, so not every child ends up with the same basic wiring and foundation capacity. The more an area is exercised, the more extensively it is wired. The last area to be wired is the prefrontal cortex, which is in charge of judgment and decision-making, i.e., intellect.
STAGE #3 - ADULT – Downloading add-ons and DATA. Once a brain area has its basic programming, a young person is then able to build on these networks by learning skills, knowledge and information. For example, once a child programs his brain for throwing, he can learn to throw a baseball or a football. Once he learns to swing a stick, he can learn to swing a baseball bat, a tennis racquet, or a golf club. He can learn facts and concepts about the sport, which would aid in performance. This capacity for learning – acquiring add-ons and data and using the basic software – continues throughout adult life.
In my writing I frequently refer to the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the area that is wired for basic functioning during adolescence. I sometimes call this the “smart” part of the brain because it’s involved in executive functions such as analysis, evaluation, decision-making, attention control, and foreseeing consequences. Because no other species has anything close to these capabilities, the PFC is the area that makes us uniquely human. We couldn’t be wise without an extensively developed PFC.
A baby has PFC hardware, but not the the software or the data. So throughout early childhood use of the PFC is minimal until adolescence, when a second massive wave of wiring happens in the PFC. Then the child has a chance to construct the wiring for using these executive functions – for being “smart.” After adolescence is over, it’s about learning – inputting add-ons and data to be processed by the basic software.
This is why I emphasize the development of “adolescent brain” (the software of the PFC) as a critical turning point in a person’s life. It’s the time when a young person can do the thinking that will cause the PFC to wire itself. The PFC hardware has a chance to get some “smart” software.
But remember, not everyone ends up with the same software. Some young people work hard and end up with extensive wiring. Adults can provide learning opportunities and encouragement, but no one can do the thinking for him. An extensive network of wiring in the PFC is like having the most robust kind of intellectual software, a massive foundation that will accept an endlessly rich array of add-ons and data. In other words, a superior mind.
And of course, a minimally wired PFC will not.