Adolescence; or, Dude, Where's My Frontal Cortex?

Conrad: Visitors who attend our annual Xenos Summer Institute often comment about the myriads of young people in our church. It's certainly one of the unique things about Xenos. From 2010-2015, our church saw a surge of growth among college and high school-aged people. Today, more than 60% of the people attending our church are college-aged or younger. That's over 3000 people under the age 30. As a result, we've learned some things about working with younger people.

Recently, I began reading a book entitled Behave by Robert Sapolsky (an American neuroendocrinologist and professor of biology/neurology at Stanford University). In his chapter, "Adolescence; or Dude, Where's My Frontal Cortex?" Sapolsky supplies scientific evidence which confirms some of the things which I've learned while working with younger people. Below, I've added extended quotes from Sapolsky's chapter along with some comments in italics. Let me know what you think in the comments section.    

Brains are pretty much wired up early in childhood— after all, by age two, brains are already about 85 percent of adult volume. But the developmental trajectory is much slower than that…The final brain region to fully mature is the frontal cortex, not going fully online until the midtwenties.

This has two screamingly important implications. First, no part of the adult brain is more shaped by adolescence than the frontal cortex. Second, nothing about adolescence can be understood outside the context of delayed frontocortical maturation. If by adolescence limbic, autonomic, and endocrine systems are going full blast while the frontal cortex is still working out the assembly instructions, we’ve just explained why adolescents are so frustrating, great, asinine, impulsive, inspiring, destructive, self-destructive, selfless, selfish, impossible, and world changing. Think about this— adolescence and early adulthood are the times when someone is most likely to kill, be killed, leave home forever, invent an art form, help overthrow a dictator, ethnically cleanse a village, devote themselves to the needy, become addicted, marry outside their group, transform physics, have hideous fashion taste, break their neck recreationally, commit their life to God, mug an old lady, or be convinced that all of history has converged to make this moment the most consequential, the most fraught with peril and promise, the most demanding that they get involved and make a difference. In other words, it’s the time of life of maximal risk taking, novelty seeking, and affiliation with peers. All because of that immature frontal cortex.

Frontal Cortical Changes in Cognition in Adolescence

To appreciate what frontal cortical maturation has to do with our best and worst behaviors, it’s helpful to first see how such maturation plays out in cognitive realms.

During adolescence there’s steady improvement in working memory, flexible rule use, executive organization, and frontal inhibitory regulation (e.g., task shifting). In general, these improvements are accompanied by increasing activity in frontal regions during tasks, with the extent of the increase predicting accuracy.

Adolescents also improve at mentalization tasks (understanding someone else’s perspective). By this I don’t mean emotional perspective (stay tuned) but purer cognitive challenges, like understanding what objects look like from someone else’s perspective. The improvement in detecting irony reflects improvement in abstract cognitive perspective taking.

Conrad: I've noticed this working with younger people. Adolescents find it difficult to identify sarcasm and irony. They tend to interpret things literally. This should shape our communication with adolescents both in our teachings and our inter-personal interaction. Our attempts at sarcastic humor may come off as patronizing or mean-spirited.

Frontal Cortical Changes in Emotional Regulation

Older teenagers experience emotions more intensely than do children or adults, something obvious to anyone who ever spent time as a teenager. For example, they are more reactive to faces expressing strong emotions.* In adults, looking at an “affective facial display” activates the amygdala [Shown in research to perform a primary role in the processing of memory, decision-making and emotional responses including fear, anxiety, and aggression], followed by activation of the emotion-regulating PFC [Pre-frontal Cortex (PFC): This brain region has been associated with personality expression, decision making, empathy, and moderating social behavior] as they habituate to the emotional content. In adolescence, though, the PFC response is less; thus the amygdaloid response keeps growing.

Adolescent Risk Taking

In the foothills of the Sierras are California Caverns, a cave system that leads, after an initial narrow, twisting 30-foot descent down a hole, to an abrupt 180-foot drop (now navigable by rappelling). The Park Service has found skeletons at the bottom dating back centuries, explorers who took one step too far in the gloom. And the skeletons are always those of adolescents.

As shown experimentally, during risky decision making, adolescents activate the prefrontal cortex less than do adults; the less activity, the poorer the risk assessment…Adolescents update their estimates as adults do for good news, but feedback about bad news barely makes a dent. (Researcher: “How likely are you to have a car accident if you’re driving while drunk?” Adolescent: “One chance in a gazillion.” Researcher: “Actually, the risk is about 50 percent; what do you think your own chances are now?” Adolescent: “Hey, we’re talking about me; one chance in a gazillion.”) We’ve just explained why adolescents have two to four times the rate of pathological gambling as do adults.

So adolescents take more risks and stink at risk assessment. But it’s not just that teenagers are more willing to take risks. After all, adolescents and adults don’t equally desire to do something risky and the adults simply don’t do it because of their frontal cortical maturity. There is an age difference in the sensations sought— adolescents are tempted to bungee jump; adults are tempted to cheat on their low-salt diet. Adolescence is characterized not only by more risking but by more novelty seeking as well.* 

Novelty craving permeates adolescence; it is when we usually develop our stable tastes in music, food, and fashion, with openness to novelty declining thereafter. 

Conrad: One might conclude from this section on risk-taking that we should prevent young people from risky-taking behavior. To some extent, we need to do this. After all, we want to protect our students from permanently injuring themselves or taking risks that could threaten their life.

However, Sapolsky's insights lead me to the opposite conclusion. If you plan to work effectively with adolescents, you can't act like their mom or dad. In our fellowship, leaders don't police young people or try to control them. Young people seem drawn to this aspect of our church. Often young people view youth group leaders as uptight and nitpicky. If you want to connect with younger people you have to manage the risk-taking associated with youth while making sure you don't come off as controlling or parental.


Age differences in absolute levels of dopamine are less interesting than differences in patterns of release. In a great study, children, adolescents, and adults in brain scanners did some task where correct responses produced monetary rewards of varying sizes (see figure above). During this, prefrontal activation in both children and adolescents was diffuse and unfocused. However, activation in the nucleus accumbens [reward center of the brain] in adolescents was distinctive. In children, a correct answer produced roughly the same increase in activity regardless of size of reward. In adults, small, medium, and large rewards caused small, medium, and large increases in accumbens activity. And adolescents? After a medium reward things looked the same as in kids and adults. A large reward produced a humongous increase, much bigger than in adults. And the small reward? Accumbens activity declined. In other words, adolescents experience bigger-than-expected rewards more positively than do adults and smaller-than-expected rewards as aversive. A gyrating top, nearly skittering out of control.

Conrad: It's important to show encouragement and enthusiasm when younger people make positive steps toward God. For example, praying out loud in front of people for the first time can feel intimidating. If I suggest this to a high school student and they try it, I will b-line for them after the meeting say, "That was awesome!"

On the other hand, young people seem less responsive to criticism or admonition. Sometimes, we need to provide correction. However, we should seize every opportunity to encourage young people when they take a step of faith. This fits with what we see in Scripture (1 Thess. 5:11, 14; Heb. 3:13).   


Peers, Social Acceptance, and Social Exclusion

Why do adolescents’ peers have such social power? For starters, adolescents are more social and more complexly social than children or adults. For example, a 2013 study showed that teens average more than four hundred Facebook friends, far more than do adults…And teens don’t rack up four hundred Facebook friends for data for their sociology doctorates. Instead there is the frantic need to belong.

This produces teen vulnerability to peer pressure and emotional contagion. Moreover, such pressure is typically “deviance training,” increasing the odds of violence, substance abuse, crime, unsafe sex, and poor health habits (few teen gangs pressure kids to join them in tooth flossing followed by random acts of kindness). For example, in college dorms the excessive drinker is more likely to influence the teetotaling roommate than the reverse. The incidence of eating disorders in adolescents spreads among peers with a pattern resembling viral contagion. The same occurs with depression among female adolescents, reflecting their tendency to “co-ruminate” on problems, reinforcing one another’s negative affect.

Neuroimaging studies show the dramatic sensitivity of adolescents to peers. Ask adults to think about what they imagine others think of them, then about what they think of themselves. Two different, partially overlapping networks of frontal and limbic structures activate for the two tasks. But with adolescents the two profiles are the same. “What do you think about yourself?” is neurally answered with “Whatever everyone else thinks about me.”

Conrad: This confirms my instinct to ground new believers (especially high school students) by providing them with evidence for their belief and teaching them basic Christian teaching. I don't want students to follow God simply because they see their friends doing it. I want them to follow Christianity because it's true.

This insight about peer pressure also seems to suggest the importance of peer friendships. When a high school student can point to several close friends, who are committed to God, they're more likely to resist temptations that could derail their walk with God (drug use, sex experience, obsessing over achievement, etc.) To put it negatively, a high school student without spiritually minded peers is vulnerable.

Empathy, Sympathy, and Moral Reasoning

By adolescence, people are typically pretty good at perspective taking, seeing the world as someone else would. That’s usually when you’ll first hear the likes of “Well, I still disagree, but I can see how he feels that way, given his experience.”

Nonetheless, adolescents are not yet adults. Unlike adults, they are still better at first- than third-person perspective taking (“ How would you feel in her situation?” versus “How does she feel in her situation?”).


As adolescents mature, they increasingly distinguish between intentional and accidental harm, viewing the former as worse…As adolescents mature, they also increasingly distinguish between harm to people and harm to objects (with the former viewed as worse); harm to people increasingly activates the amygdala, while the opposite occurs for harm to objects. Interestingly, as adolescents age, there is less differentiation between recommended punishment for intentional and unintentional damage to objects. In other words, the salient point about the damage becomes that, accidental or otherwise, the damn thing needs to be fixed— even if there is less crying over spilled milk, there is no less cleaning required.*

Conrad: This points to another common feature of working with young people. They tend toward black-and-white thinking. Adolescents find it difficult to see the nuance in certain situations. It's hard for them to see how motives and extenuating circumstances factor into determining culpability.  

What about one of the greatest things about adolescents, with respect to this book’s concerns— their frenzied, agitated, incandescent ability to feel someone else’s pain, to feel everyone’s pain, to try to make everything right?


This intensity is no surprise, being at the intersection of many facets of adolescence. There are the abundant emotions and limbic gyrations. The highs are higher, the lows lower, empathic pain scalds, and the glow of doing the right thing makes it seem plausible that we are here for a purpose. Another contributing factor is the openness to novelty. An open mind is a prerequisite for an open heart, and the adolescent hunger for new experiences makes possible walking miles in lots of other people’s shoes. And there is the egoism of adolescence. During my late adolescence I hung out with Quakers, and they’d occasionally use the aphorism “All God has is thee.” This is the God of limited means, not just needing the help of humans to right a wrong, but needing you, you only, to do so. The appeal to egoism is tailor-made for adolescents. Throw in inexhaustible adolescent energy plus a feeling of omnipotence, and it seems possible to make the world whole, so why not?


As will be seen, one instance where empathic responses don’t necessarily lead to acts is when we think enough to rationalize (“ It’s overblown as a problem” or “Someone else will fix it”). But feeling too much has problems as well. Feeling someone else’s pain is painful, and people who do so most strongly, with the most pronounced arousal and anxiety, are actually less likely to act prosocially. Instead the personal distress induces a self-focus that prompts avoidance—“ This is too awful; I can’t stay here any longer.” As empathic pain increases, your own pain becomes your primary concern.


This adolescent empathy frenzy can seem a bit much for adults. But when I see my best students in that state, I have the same thought— it used to be so much easier to be like that. My adult frontal cortex may enable whatever detached good I do. The trouble, of course, is how that same detachment makes it easy to decide that something is not my problem.

Conrad: Sometimes adults feel annoyed by the volatile emotions adolescents express. Adults roll their eyes as they listen to a high school student recount a “crisis” involving two friends fighting over a boy. Or adults may feel frustrated with how emotional a student may be acting.

But it’s important for us (adults) to remember what it was like when we were teenagers. We often made bad decisions. We rode the same roller coaster of emotions. We often viewed something inconsequential as a “crisis.” We need to show empathy and understanding for this stage of life in which all of us struggled. After all didn't Jesus say, "first get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend's eye (Matt. 7:5)."

A Final Thought: Why Can't The Frontal Cortex Just Act Its Age? 

As promised, this chapter’s dominant fact has been the delayed maturation of the frontal cortex. Why should the delay occur? Is it because the frontal cortex is the brain’s most complicated construction project? Probably not. The frontal cortex uses the same neurotransmitter systems as the rest of the brain and uses the same basic neurons. Neuronal density and complexity of interconnections are similar to the rest of the (fancy) cortex. It isn’t markedly harder to build frontal cortex than any other cortical region.

Thus, it is not likely that if the brain “could” grow a frontal cortex as fast as the rest of the cortex, it “would.” Instead I think there was evolutionary selection for delayed frontal cortex maturation.

If the frontal cortex matured as fast as the rest of the brain, there’d be none of the adolescent turbulence, none of the antsy, itchy exploration and creativity, none of the long line of pimply adolescent geniuses who dropped out of school and worked away in their garages to invent fire, cave painting, and the wheel.

Conrad: Adolescents possess the bright idealism that often dims when you get older and “wiser.”  Young people often long to be a part of something bigger than themselves. They want to make a difference in the world. Many adults have given up on making the world better and have opted for comfort.

As I work with students, their idealism inspires me. It challenges me. I want to help direct young people’s idealism toward making an impact for God’s kingdom. After all, God worked young people. Mary, Jesus’ mother was probably a teenager when she bore the Son of God. God called David when he was a young man. John the Apostle followed Jesus as a teenager. God seeks to use young people powerfully.