Inside the high schooler’s brain

"OMG! When my parents tell me to be careful, I’m like LOL! Then I do whatever my BFFs do . . ."

Why are teenagers insane? Why is it that high-schoolers who are brilliant enough to check-mate us in ten measured moves can’t remember to walk the dog before running off for a night of reckless lunacy with their maniacal friends? By 16, our children have attained adult ability in logic, so what’s their excuse, neurologically?

Frances E. Jensen, MD, Senior Associate in Neurology at Children’s Hospital Boston, Harvard Medical School’s primary teaching hospital notes that adolescent brains are, "about 80 percent of the way to maturity." 

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Inside the 8th grader’s brain

“I am very deep, sensitive, and aware. But no one understands me.”

In eighth grade, kids experience a massive boost in brain growth that results in enhanced abilities in problem solving, deductive reasoning, abstract thinking, strategic planning, and impulse control.

Hooray? This news is intellectually exhilarating, but there’s a caveat. Frances Jensen, neurology professor at Harvard Medical Center, describes teen thinking as, “paradoxical… these are people with very sharp brains, but they’re not quite sure what to do with them.”

Inside the eighth grade brain, the frontal lobe is growing and interconnecting. This is fantastic news, but patience is required: your child’s frontal lobe won’t reach full maturity and re-structuring until your child is 25 to 30 years old.

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Inside the 7th grader’s brain

“When I’m a grown-up, I want to be totally awesome.”

Seventh graders are often hormone-addled, pimpled, unpredictable narcissists, rudely defiant one second and emotionally clingy the next. They’ve probably calculated that you’re not as cool as Taylor Swift, Stephen Curry or even their faddishly dressed BFF — and they let you know it. You may wonder if aliens inhabit your child’s body. Those invading “aliens” are hormones.

When kids reach puberty, their brains produce gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH). When GnRH courses into the tiny pituitary gland, two additional hormones — luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) — escape and basically run wild. In boys, these hormones swim south, telling the testes to start manufacturing testosterone and sperm. In girls, LH and FSH manipulate the ovaries, soliciting the production of estrogen. In both cases, sometimes it can seem like hormones are running the show.

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Inside the 6th grader’s brain

“This hill is savage! Let’s zoom down it on our hoverboards.”

Sixth graders are often reckless, carpe diem action-seekers bouncing from one high-stimulus activity to the next. Accident prone? You betcha. My sixth grade daughter has a classmate who’s been to the ER five times this year, for two sprained ankles, a broken wrist, a broken arm, and a concussion.

Impulse control? Sorry, that region of the brain — the frontal cortex — is still embryonic. Sixth graders might eat desserts until they get sick, they often leap before they look, and — endearingly — they frequently raise their hands enthusiastically in class before they realize they don’t know the answer.

Dopamine is a hormone that encourages novelty-seeking, sensation-hunting behavior and sixth graders are, alarmingly, ditsy dopes on dopamine. Self-control isn’t part of their neurological package.

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Inside the 5th grader’s brain

"Mom, you just don’t understand!"

Classic statement of alienation, huh? By fifth grade, the child’s brain has created a unique "self" due to its one-of-a-kind neural pathways. The upgraded analytic ability also enables fifth graders’ noggins to become keenly, painfully aware of how they fit, or don’t fit, into certain social groups. Partnered with dramatic imagination, your child may feel lonely and unaccepted, a social failure with fragile self-esteem.

The reason for all this fifth grade angst? Your child’s friendships are probably rising in importance. This shift toward friends can make things alarmingly nasty if accompanied by peer group pressure, cliques, jealousy, possessiveness, and bullying. Children who feel rejected in the savagely swirling fifth grade frog pond can become melancholy and nervous. What can you do?

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Inside the 4th grader’s brain

"Why won’t you let me do that? All my friends get to! They’ll laugh at me if I don’t get to, too!"

Friendships often emerge as extremely important in fourth graders, an alarmingly trend if it’s accompanied by peer group pressure, cliques, bullying, and fierce jockeying for popularity. The slow slippage of influence away from parents toward peers can concern moms and dads, who fear adolescent rebellion is arriving too early.

Are you one of the worriers? Here’s comfort for you: The friendship-fixated behavior of your fourth grader is absolutely normal. A fourth grader’s brain has developed a unique "self" at this age, with one-of-a-kind thinking patterns based on individualized neural pathways. You gave love, guidance, nutrition, exercise, education, and enriching experiences, which your child utilized to create dendrites, axons, synapses, and myelin – you were the primary "gardener" of your child’s brain! But now, your child might need close peers of the same age for bonding, giggling, secrets, and commiseration.

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Inside the 3rd grader’s brain

“Is this good? It’s not good? You didn’t say it was good right away, so you think it’s bad. Now I hate it and have to do it over again!”

Many 8-year-olds are hypercritical, particularly of themselves and their efforts. Their judgmental self-loathing seems to indicate pitiful self-esteem, and mommies and daddies might worry, but… don’t! Self-flagellating third graders are just passing through a brain development stage known as learning “evaluation.” They’ll inflict this new cognitive skill on themselves, and also on you! Third graders enjoy catching parents and teachers making mistakes, but they’ll also beg for praise to alleviate shame in their own perceived flaws.

Here’s a flurry of contradictory adjectives that can describe a third grader: exuberant, self-deprecating, gregarious, obnoxious, friendly, secretive, silly, bossy, dramatic, defiant, cheerful, affectionate, curious, resistant, helpful, rude, know-it-all, insecure, easy-going, impatient. 

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Inside the 2nd grader’s brain

"What happens if we’re late, Daddy? Will something bad happen? I don’t wanna’ be late!"

Second graders have a propensity to worry. They can fret about nightmares, the dark, their clothes, their homework, or their stomach aches that might — in their agitated minds — be a lethal disease. They hate making mistakes, not finishing tasks, and especially losing. They have to be first, correct, punctual, best, and perfect. What’s wrong with these little nut-cases? Are they blooming neurotics? Hypochondriac loons?

No, they’re not. Morose sensitivity in this age group is actually proof that their brain is developing properly. Seven-year-olds can finally grasp concepts like space, direction, distance, and time. They now understand that the clock is ticking forward. Suddenly, schedules, routines, calendars, plans, predictability, rules, justice, and assignments become excruciatingly serious causes for concern.

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Inside the 1st grader’s brain

"That’s not fair!"

If your six-year-old’s pleas for justice are driving you nuts, take note: Your child’s fixation on fairness is developmentally positive. The first-grader’s swiftly developing brain is leaping from magical thinking to logical, rational mental processing; she’s eager to understand the principles behind rules and regulations.

First graders are incongruously attracted to both the penal code (laws, police, ethics, traffic signs, crime, jail) and to competitive winning — at all costs! They’ll panic if you jaywalk because they fear prison. But they’ll also lie, cheat, and argue to win.

What’s happening neurologically inside the first-grader’s conflicted skull? 

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Inside the kindergartner’s brain

"Let me do that! I’m all grown up now."

Kindergartners can be swollen with self-esteem, thanks to graduating from preschool into "big kid" school, where they mingle with older role models. Indeed, the kindergarten range of four-and-a-half to six years old is often bossy, belligerent, and boastful about newly-acquired motor skills like sprinting and monkey-bar tricks. The kindergarten brain also features many mental upgrades from a preschooler’s: superior memory, beefed-up attention span, a tighter grip on reality, improved self-control and social skills, and a firmer grasp of knowledge codes — i.e., numbers and the alphabet.

Even so, kindergartners are burdened and blessed with brain activity that’s wildly alien to adult intelligence. A five-year-old noodle has 100 billion brain cells (neurons) with 77 percent in the furiously-networking cerebral cortex — the zone that constructs language, math, memory, attention, and complex problem-solving.

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Inside the preschooler’s brain

"No! I don’t want to! Waahwaah!"

Good news, parents. If this sound eerily like your preschooler, don’t fret. Neuroscientists do not regard the shrieking lamentation as proof that your child is a "spoiled brat." A more accurate definition of the garden-variety tantrum is that the preschooler’s still-developing brain is overwhelmed by mental demands.

In other words, it is part and parcel of their cognitive stage.

The grey matter of three to five year olds is a rapidly-growing, dynamic, fluid, spontaneous, amazing work-in-progress that is . . . still quite unreasonable. 

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Stress and your child’s brain

Stress! Bad for the body! Bad for the brain! We’ve seen the articles, watched the 11 o’clock news reports on the “silent killer,” and complained to friends and family about how stressed-out we are. While we all know that adult stress can lead to serious illnesses such as ulcers and hypertension, we don’t associate these maladies with children.

But research suggests that chronically stressed children do pay a heavy price. In fact, they are at risk of cognitive damage, because their brains are not yet fully developed.

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Your child’s brain on video games

“Hi honeys, I’m home!”

You skip into your house after a brutal day at the office, greeting your offspring with a generous smile.

“I’m so happy to see everybody!”

Silence. No one looks at you. Everyone is hunched over, hypnotized by a gizmo.

Teen daughter Tabitha is texting furiously. Tommy, your tween, is blasting video game bad guys. Five-year-old Theresa stares rapturously at an episode of Annoying Orange, a YouTube video on the gleaming screen.

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Your child’s brain on television

How does TV affect your child's developing brain? Find out in part two of our ongoing series on tech and your child's brain.

Does TV rot the brain of a child glued to the screen more than an hour or two a day, as many parents fear? (One to two hours is the maximum dose recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The group discourages all media use for children under 2.)

According to brain scientist Daphne Bavelier, the effects of television depend completely on the quality of the TV kids watch. In her study, “Children, wired — for better and for worse,” Bavelier argues that content quality varies as widely as the nutritional value of different foods. Many television programs foster cognitive gains, she reports, while others decidedly do not. 

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Your child’s brain on social media

Is your child disinterested in video games, television, and texting, but alarmingly enthralled by social media sites? Many children are: a recent Pew Research Center survey determined that 73 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds use Facebook, with smaller but significant percentages of kids who are active on Twitter and Instagram.

Why is social media so popular? Two primary reasons — for people of all ages — include a love of “sharing” (46 percent) and searching for “entertaining or funny” content (39 percent). Women also list “learning about ways to help others” (35 percent) and “receiving support from people in your network” (29 percent) as major excuses to log in.

These all sound like healthy reasons to use social media. Nothing to worry about, so… what are parents afraid of?

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Your child’s brain on cell phones

Cell phones are synonymous with teenagers, and they carry risks: traffic accidents, quite emphatically; and, more debatably, brain tumors.

The causal connection between cell phones and brain tumors has been suggested for awhile, but it’s a matter of dispute. A 2013 study by researchers in New Zealand warns that high cellphone use in young adolescence puts kids at increased risk of brain tumors due to microwave radiation exposure, and a Swedish study claims people who begin using cordless or mobile phones regularly before the age of 20 are at more than a fourfold increased risk of brain cancer.

But many other studies dismiss the danger. A 2013 Taiwanese report analyzed 10 years of data and did not find a connection between cell phone use and brain tumors in Taiwan.

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Your child’s brain on e-tablets

Are you an old-fashioned reader who thinks “dead-tree” books are superior because shiny iPad and eBook screens are annoying and alien? It may be time to adjust your attitude.

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The science behind growing a healthy brain

It’s a heady responsibility. Thanks to the rapidly expanding field of brain research, parents now know just how malleable (or plastic) their children’s brains are and — particularly when children are young — how much influence they can have on “feeding” their child’s growing mind. (Hint: we’re not talking flash cards.) To make sense of the latest research, we spoke with Jane Healy, bestselling author of numerous books on children’s brain development, including the widely acclaimed Your Child’s Growing Mind.

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Brain Development in School Years - not all educations are equal, and teens take cognitive risks

Exercise - John Ratey MD, author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, calls exercise Miracle-Gro for the brain because it elevates neurotransmitters, stimulates neuron growth, and builds the brain's infrastructure. Children need to be engaged in physically challenging activities, 30 - 60 minutes per day. For older children, sports like soccer, swimming, yoga, gymnastics and dance are valuable brain-boosters. A University of Illinois (Champagne-Urbana) study indicates that 10 year olds who are physically fit perform better on a variety of cognitive tests than their out-of-shape peers. MRI scans determined that the hippocampus - a brain region that contributes to spatial reasoning and memory - was 12 percent larger in the children who exercised. Columbia University research discovered that exercise also builds brain cells in the dentate gyrus. Are there sex differences in exercise's benefits? A Harvard Medical School study asserted that greater physical activity was associated with higher intelligence scores for women, whereas exercise level was essentially unrelated to intelligence among men.

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Early Childhood – not breastfed? that’s unfortunate, but there are factors more horrible

Infectious Disease - Researchers at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, in 2010, examined the correlation between a nation’s average cognitive ability and it’s intensity of infectious disease. Testing their theory on the fifty United States, they found positive correlation. Internationally, they also discovered that nations with the lowest average national IQs have the highest burdens of infectious diseases. The four main infectious diseases that cause mental damage are listed below:

Malaria: The “brain insult” of malaria is horrendous. One international study defines cerebral malaria “as the presence of coma” leaving victims with neurophysiological impairment to brain regions associated with planning, decision-making, self-awareness, and social sensitivity. University of New Mexico researchers state, “From an energetics standpoint, a developing human will have difficulty building a brain and fighting off infectious diseases at the same time, as both are very metabolically costly tasks.” Bill Gates 2011 letter to his foundation included a graph showing that countries with a higher disease burden have lower average IQs.

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Brain Scans are Revealing the Neuro-anatomy of Intelligence

Where in the brain is intelligence? Why, anatomically, are some individuals “smarter” than others? What does a wise brain look like? Dr. Richard J. Haier of the University of California at Irvine has been using neuro-imaging technology for over two decades in his search to determine the anatomy of neuro-intelligence. I interviewed him recently on the progress and potential of his research:

Hank Pellissier: Dr. Haier, as we learn what’s anatomically required in an intelligent brain, will we be able to deliver higher IQ to everyone, by tweaking the brain?

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PreNatal & Natal IQ Factors - damaged before your born, or as you’re delivered

PreNatal Diagnosis - Fetal Screening can determine if fetuses have birth defects or genetic diseases that cause cognitive damage. Diagnoses utilize ultrasonography, MRI, amniocentesis, blood sampling, and numerous other procedures. There are more than four thousand genetic disorders, with every human carrying up to a dozen heritable traits. With genetic testing, mutations can be ascertained in advance in both parents, with an estimate provided of the child’s chances of inheriting the malignancy. Is prenatal diagnosis “expensive”? Perhaps, but the expense is minor compared to the astronomical long-term costs of treating the diseases. A partial list of IQ-impaired conditions: neural tube defects, Downs syndrome (IQ range is 40-70), Tay-Sachs disease, Sickle Cell Anemia (1 in 3 have IQ >75), Klinefelter’s syndrome (-14 IQ points), Fragile X syndrome (80% have < 80 IQ) , Neurofibromatosis (-13 IQ points), WIlliams syndrome (-35 IQ points), Phenylketonuria, aka PKU (IQ average is 91.1), and Prader-Willi syndrome (IQ average is 70). PreNatal diagnosis can also determine damage caused by womb-environment factors (Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, 75 IQ), and injury in intrauterine development (many cerebral palsies).

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Brain Damage Update: Avoid Wheat, Sugar, Cholesterol-Lowering Statins, and... Cat Feces? 

Eating Wheaties for breakfast? Keeping Fluffy’s litter box clean? Gulping down cholesterol-lowering medication? If you think these activities are healthy, sorry… reports suggest all these habits contain the potential to poison your brain. In an earlier essay I listed “83 ways to stupefy the brain.” Unfortunately, four additional toxicities need to be added. If you’re serious about performing at peak cognitive proficiency, read the evidence below, and adjust your lifestyle accordingly.

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Brain Benefits linked to High-Status Moms Who Eat Chocolate + Breat-Fed Boys Who Don't Fight

A new study from Harvard indicates that seniors can improve their brain health by consuming two cups of hot chocolate per day. Blood flow to their brain improved by 8.3% and the time it took them to complete a memory test decreased by about 30%. Scientists don’t know what chemical produced the acceleration - was it the flavonoids, caffeine, or theobromine?

Power Corrupts

People with significant power over others lose their ability to empathize with others, claims a study by neuroscientist Sukhvinder Ohbi from Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada. NPR reported on the research here.

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