14.2 Cognitive Changes in the Brain

Early in adolescence, changes in Dopamine, a chemical in the brain that is a neurotransmitter and produces feelings of pleasure, can contribute to increases in adolescents’ sensation-seeking and reward motivation. During adolescence, people tend to do whatever activities produce the most dopamine without fully considering the consequences of such actions. Later in adolescence, the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for outcomes, forming judgments, controlling impulses and emotions, also continues to develop (Goldberg, 2001). The difference in timing of the development of these different regions of the brain contributes to more risk taking during middle adolescence because adolescents are motivated to seek thrills (Steinberg, 2008). One of the world’s leading experts on adolescent development, Laurence Steinberg, likens this to engaging a powerful engine before the braking system is in place. The result is that adolescents are prone to risky behaviors more often than children or adults.

A simulation of the risky behavior of drinking and driving.^[[Image](https://www.scott.af.mil/News/Features/Display/Article/162484/medical-group-moulage-experts-help-teens-understand-dangers-of-drinking-and-dri/) by the [Scott Air Force Base](https://www.scott.af.mil/) is in the public domain]

Figure 14.1: A simulation of the risky behavior of drinking and driving.607

Although the most rapid cognitive changes occur during childhood, the brain continues to develop throughout adolescence, and even into the 20s (Weinberger, Elvevåg, & Giedd, 2005). The brain continues to form new neural connections and becomes faster and more efficient because it prunes, or casts off unused neurons and connections (Blakemore, 2008), and produces myelin, the fatty tissue that forms around axons and neurons, which helps speed transmissions between different regions of the brain (Rapoport et al., 1999). This time of rapid cognitive growth for teens, making them more aware of their potential and capabilities, causes a great amount of disequilibrium for them. Theorists have researched cognitive changes and functions and have formed theories based on this developmental period.608

  1. Image by the Scott Air Force Base is in the public domain↩︎

  2. Content by Dawn Rymond is licensed under CC BY 4.0; Adolescent Development by Jennifer Lansford is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0↩︎