Twain Was Right: We Adults Really Do Get Smarter as We Age

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Mark Twain once said, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” If you’ve ever lived with a teen, you know that they have no frontal lobe that governs the concept of consequences. I have three teens right now, so I get a daily glimpse into the teen brain. However, how does this develop as they age? Our study this morning looks at how the teen brain works and how it develops into adulthood and perhaps gives a little insight into Twain’s father.

What You Need to Know About the Developing Teen Brain

Before we review the study on the developing “social brain” region in teens and how this affects their ability to analyze fairness, let’s look at the developing brain in general. A healthy brain can support learning at any age through a variety of ways including chemical signals between the brain cells, structural changes that actually shift the connections between the brain cells, and even through functional changes that occur when an entire region of the brain is stimulated. The point is, the brain at any age, not just the heavy-learning teen years, is designed to keep developing and keep learning. Let’s take a look at a handful of fascinating things we’ve covered about the brain in recent years:

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The Developing Teen Social Brain and the Concept of Fairness

The new study consisted of young participants, aged 9 to 23 and was designed for the purpose of investigating the development of brain regions associated with understanding fairness. The participants played ultimatum-type games requiring the analysis of fairness as a final objective.

The result? The younger the participants were, the more fairness was viewed as an equal share. In other words, is the outcome equal? For example, if there’s one cookie, it’s fair if you get half and I get half. It wasn’t until late teens and early adulthood that participants’ “social brains” had developed to the point where fairness could be measured by a more complex reciprocal arrangement. In other words, why should the other person expect to get more than, equal to, or less than what I’m getting? For example, if there’s one cookie and you ate lunch but the other person didn’t, it’s fair for the other person to get more than half of the cookie. So as the teen “social brain” develops, it gradually shifts from analyzing fairness based on equal outcomes to fairness based on the situation.

Researchers associated this gradual change, from childhood through the teenage years and into early adulthood, in the comprehension of fairness with actual structural changes in the “social brain” regions. They found cortical thinning in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and the posterior temporal cortex. The former allows us to comprehend the mental state of others, and the latter allows us to read facial expression and other cues.

The upshot? Teen brains do evolve, and in their minds, I’m sure we parents get a little smarter every year. I, for one, can’t wait for the day that dear old Dad has truly learned some things!

Chris Centeno, MD is a specialist in regenerative medicine and the new field of Interventional Orthopedics. Centeno pioneered orthopedic stem cell procedures in 2005 and is responsible for a large amount of the published research on stem cell use for orthopedic applications. View Profile

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