We’ve learned more about the human brain in the last ten years than the previous ten thousand. Adolescence in particular is a time of dramatic change.
I’m currently pursing a master’s in social science and as I have two daughters on either side of the teenage spectrum (10 and 19), I decided to enroll in a course on Adolescent Brain Development.
I’ve learned that from age 10 to 25, approximately, the human brain goes through significant structural transitions as it is both built up through the maturation of various areas of the cortex and the myelination (coating) of neurons, and thinned out through synaptic pruning, a kind of knowledge specialization.
The teenage brain advances in a back-to-front pattern. The prefrontal cortex, the region responsible for executive functions such as impulse control, emotional response, decision making, planning and judgement, is not considered fully matured until the mid-twenties.
Let me put it another way: it’s a lot like the Hunger Games.
In the titular Games of Suzanne Collins’s books and their film adaptations, twenty-four combatants, one male and one female tribute aged 12 to 18 from each of Panem’s twelve districts, are put into a controlled hostile environment and pitted against each other for however long it takes for all but one to die.
Some of the tributes are conditioned for combat to the death since early childhood and have an obvious advantage. Others, like protagonist Katniss, have gained survival skills from their harsh upbringing. Many tributes form early alliances but must ultimately betray them in order to win. Tributes are mentored by previous victors and may also gain sponsors on the outside who can send supplies and cheats to their favorites.
Synaptic pruning works in a similar way.
Although there are many thousands more than twenty four synapses in an adolescent’s brain, and the activity is not as contentious, the synapses are chosen to retain space in the adult brain based on what is strong, what is used, and what is learned. Like the tributes, the brain’s prime directive is to survive, and then prosper.
For the most part, fortunately, the teenage readers of the Hunger Games trilogy will never be required to fight their peers or survive an environment created to destroy them. However, they are biologically wired to relate to the struggle of synaptic plasticity or the “use it or lose it” principle.
Their brains are making hundreds of thousands of choices based on the same questions of “what do I need to know to survive?” and secondarily “what do I want to know to enjoy?” The older they get, and the more maturely developed their brains are, the quicker the choices are made as the myelination forms over the ‘winning’ synapses and the excess, weaker, unnecessary, or redundant gray matter is weeded out.
While the overall volume and thickness of the brain’s gray matter decreases through adolescence, the gray matter within the regions that make up the ‘social brain network’ — those associated with the mentalizing or ‘thinking about thinking’ process — continues to thicken into the early twenties of late adolescence.
This indicates that areas of the brain responsible for deciphering the intentions of other people are still forming throughout adolescence. Additional data suggests teenagers expend energy to consider what others, and especially their peers, may think about everything they are doing or wanting to do. Combined these two ideas explain how teens can get stuck in the decision making process more often than adults or children.
Katniss is quick to make life or death decisions in the arena because her survival skills are well honed. However, she has many difficulties deciding what she wants beyond survival. As the novels are written in the first person the reader is privy to all of Katniss’s questions, fears, and self-doubt. She doesn’t trust the society she was born into, the system she must work within, or any of the people she encounters, including her family, her mentors, and her peers. But she also doesn’t entirely trust that distrust or her own point of view.
Katniss begins the series at age 16, which is towards the end of the series’s teen tribute spectrum, but still right in the middle of adolescence in terms of human brain development. Her brain is still maturing, her synaptic social brain network still forming, which leads to her overthinking every decision, every option, and leaves her overwrought.
This is frustrating not only for Katniss but for everyone around her and for adult readers who prefer she would decide, and act, rather than ‘whine’ about it internally. But teenage readers in the same developmental stage as Katniss can relate to her indecision and to the pressure she feels from adults, peers, and societal norms. They recognize that the struggle to articulate her desires reflect Katniss is actually moving away from childish egocentrism and toward an adult social engagement and awareness.
While Katniss is going through the process of building her own identity, she is surrounded by people her fighting to do it for her. There are the forces of the Capitol, led by chief antagonist President Snow, who use the spectacle of the Hunger Games to keep the upper class masses entertained and the lower class masses enslaved. There are the forces of the rebellion, led by President Coin, who shapeS Katniss into the symbol of their revolution.
There are the people closest to her, Gale and Peeta, at odds for her affection and representative of different paths of social interaction. And there are many individuals and groups who share traits and outlooks with one or more. And every one of them requests — requires — Katniss to be more than the adolescent girl she is or the adult woman she is becoming.
Adolescents are highly susceptible to external influences, especially peers. They are far more likely to engage in risky behaviors in the company or service of their friends or like minded people. The brain learns by taking a concrete sensory experience and moving the data through its cortical network to reflect, observe, consider, and hypothesize, and finally act.
Adults make decisions by weighing options, considering various sides, thinking abstractly. Adolescents are not developmentally capable of the same thought processes. They misconstrue external data such as facial expressions and put too much emphasis on peer evaluation, worrying ‘what everyone thinks of me’. Katniss’s experience with celebrity in the Hunger Games is a heightened reflection of the teen experience of living in a bubble.
The Hunger Games series is popular with its teenage audience because they can relate to it as an analogy for adolescence. Teens will relate to any coming-of-age story, but dystopian extremes can counterintuitively feel even more real. Dystopian young adult fiction takes the chaos of adolescent development and transforms it into a narrative which provides both an outlet and a map to the teen audience — and any parent looking for a way into her teenage child’s brain.
Blakemore, S-J, Mills, KL. “Is Adolescence a Sensitive Period for Sociocultural Processing?” 2014. Annu. Rev. Psycho. 65:187-207
Dumontheil I, Hillebrandt H, Apperly IA, Blakemore S-J. 2012. “Developmental differences in the control of action selection by social information.” J. Cogn. Neurosci. 24:2080-95
van den Bos W, Van Dijk E, Westenberg M, Rombouts SA, Crone EA. 2011. “Changing brains, changing perspectives: the neurocognitive development of reciprocity.” Psychol. Sci. 22:60-70