What Teenage Brains Can Teach Us About Creativity

Teenagers generate colossal revenue on YouTube, and draw millions of views to Minecraft and makeup streams. They create endlessly on TikTok. They learn second languages and sonatas. They invent dances, coin slang words and lead political movements.


So why don't teenagers get more credit?


For years, adults have regarded teens as impulsive and emotionally uncontrolled. Then, advancements in neuroscience helped to broaden our understanding of teen behavior. The public learned more about the brain's prefrontal cortex. It's the part that regulates planning and decision-making and doesn't mature until around age 25. This went a long way toward explaining adolescents' often-confusing behavior. However, it left adults more focused on the teenage brain's role in risk-taking rather than its role in learning and creating.


That has frustrated some researchers. A sprawling report on adolescent development was released in 2019 by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. It noted that "oversimplified headlines" and adults' concern with teenage vulnerability have led to a fundamental misunderstanding of recent science. 


Brain Development Is About Growing And Learning

The report is part of a growing effort by nonprofits, scientists and policy scholars to reframe how different disciplines, and the general public, think about adolescence. It's true that the "emotional" and "rational" parts of teens' brains develop at different paces. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, researchers say. Fixating on the negatives overlooks the very opportunities that can help teens to learn and grow. 


The teens' "fearlessness" can concern adults, said Adriana Galván, director of the University of California, Los Angeles' Developmental Neuroscience Laboratory. However, it is "exactly what makes adolescents thrive in the space of creativity and enacting social change."


The teenage brain's characteristics, including its inclination toward taking risks, are what prepare teenagers for adulthood. It's what lends them a sort of superpower in learning, acquiring skills, and creativity. Teenage brains are at a unique neurological stage. They can adapt like in childhood, building up new connections and pruning away unused ones. But they are also starting to gain the adult ability to think abstractly, envision the future and make social connections, Galván said.


A Discovery Pointing To Positive Feedback

The prefrontal cortex remains important to adolescent neuroscience, Galván said. However recent research has also focused on the regions that contribute to teenagers' socioemotional development — and the understanding that these regions don't develop in isolation. The prefrontal cortex, the social regions, and other parts of the brain are also building and refining new connections between each other. It's a process just as important as the maturation itself.


In her research, for example, Galván has examined the connection between the brain's striatum, a region associated with reward-seeking behavior, and the hippocampus, associated with learning and memory. Her work suggests that the connection is especially strong in teens and that adolescents are more likely than adults to learn from positive feedback. This could have applications for education, she said.


Let's say the adolescent brain "is really good at learning from rewards," Galván said — driving the kinds of thrill-seeking behaviors that otherwise put adults so on edge. If so, "we should leverage that to help them learn."


Risks, in other words, don't have to always seem harmful, said Joanna Lee Williams. She's an associate professor at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education and Human Development. She also contributed to the National Academies report. They can be healthy, too, like deciding to join the marching band.


Families, Environments Contribute To Brain Development

That doesn't mean lifting all limits on teenage behavior or waving away risks entirely. But parents and educators can start by understanding that some risks are crucial for learning and creating, Williams and other researchers say. 


Williams acknowledges that that comes from a broad birds-eye view. The report's findings will not apply to every argument between adults and teenagers. Still, generally, teens' sensitivity to rewards means they might not simply ignore risks, but think of them positively. Parents and educators can take advantage of that, helping teens to learn from mistakes rather than leaping straight to punishing them.


"The adolescent brain doesn't develop in isolation," said Galván, who also helped review the National Academies report. "It develops in families, it develops in systems and it develops in different environments." Any of those pieces can change a teenager's growth for better or worse.


That's something youth advocates and educators have known for years. Williams said she has spoken with middle school educators whose concerns were much closer to the ground: What does the newer research mean for students in my school facing issues such as mental illness, family problems, racism or economic inequality?


Adolescence As "An Age Of Opportunity"

Mental illness refers to a range of mental health conditions. These are disorders that can affect mood, thoughts and behavior. Examples include depression, anxiety and eating disorders. Many people have mental health concerns at some point. What distinguishes a mental illness, such as depression, from normal feelings such as sadness, is that mental illnesses cause ongoing stress and severely interfere with a person's ability to function. Most mental illnesses can be treated with medication and therapy.


Williams said she believes "in the promise of adolescence and adolescence as an age of opportunity." However, that "does not mean there aren't also these huge, realistic challenges as well."


She sees teens leading social movements, injecting energy and new ideas into public life. That has been the case throughout history, she said, and the newer developmental science explains why. She's proud and excited when she sees those changes, but not surprised.


"If more youth had this opportunity," she said, "then, of course, we should expect these things."