We know that puberty changes the body. But what does it do to the mind?
Puberty. We often associate it with “raging hormones,” impulsive decisions, and swinging from emotion to emotion. Older people are often heard talking about teens, “I don’t know what’s wrong with them. They’re out of control!”
Nothing is wrong with puberty. It is a natural maturation where the body is changing. But the mind is also changing. We often hear about the effects of puberty on the body in sex ed classes, but rarely do we hear what is happening in the brain and how to work with these changes.
The truth is young people’s minds undergo radical transformation during puberty. And it may seem like they’re out of control. But really, young people have a lot to offer during this maturation process and a lot of choice in how their brains reshape during puberty.
Let’s discover the amazing process that puberty is!
Puberty and the Brain – Why It’s Important
Why is it that we are so much more vocal about the physical changes of puberty but are not so curious about the mental changes?
This is a question we were inspired to ask after viewing Ted Ed’s video, “What sex ed doesn’t tell you about your brain.” If we are passionate about education and helping young people discover their power to effect change in the world, it’s critical to understand what’s going on with young minds.
We discovered that young people do have more control than we often think over the way their minds and behaviors change throughout puberty. While research is still being done on the subject, it is very possible that the experiences and social interactions a young person has during puberty affects their mental reformations just as much as the internal chemical changes in the brain.
If this is the case, we have the responsibility to educate young people on how their brains are changing, learn how to communicate in the midst of all these changes, and help young people choose experiences and build skill sets that will form their brain the way they want.
Estrogen & Testosterone – More than The Sex Hormone
Puberty starts in the brain. The changes that occur in both the body and the brain during puberty are driven by hormones, the body’s chemical messenger system. Puberty is triggered to begin when the hypothalamus releases a specialized hormone, GnRH, alerting the body to start ch-ch-ch-ch-changing (to quote David Bowie!)
After GnRH is released, it calls on estrogen and testosterone – two of the most famous puberty hormones produced in the developing testes and ovaries. We know the spike in these hormone levels during puberty are responsible for developing sex drive. But they also are responsible for the massive mental transformation that occurs during puberty. Estrogen and testosterone flow through the bloodstream up to the brain where they connect with neurons. This connection begins drastically changing how the cells in the brain work. Estrogen and testosterone are responsible for making cells more or less excitable, changing their growth patterns, and reshaping connections between cells. This in turn affects the way young people think and behave.
Research has found that not only do these hormones encourage growth of axons (the wirey extensions of neurons that allow them to send signals to each other) but they also increase the production of white matter in the brain which speeds up neural transmission and cognitive function. This means that young people’s minds are actually becoming more capable of processing complex information and making decisions in an intelligent, adult way.
Bottom line? Estrogen and testosterone are responsible for increased sex drive as well as increased reasoning ability.
Limbic System – Powerful Emotions
We’ve learned that young people’s brains are more capable of handling complex connections. But the other side of the coin is that young people are also learning to handle many more emotions – which can cause a lot of confusion.
During puberty, hormones essentially rearrange the region of the brain responsible for processing emotions – the limbic system. This section of the brain undergoes a lot of changes during puberty. And the growth in the limbic system outpaces the rate of development in the prefrontal cortex which is the region of the brain responsible for decision-making. This is why teens often find it difficult to check their emotions and make more thought-out decisions. Over the course of adolescence, however, the prefrontal cortex catches up with and gains greater control over the limbic system. It’s all a matter of time!
Another element changing during puberty is perception. Part of the limbic system that transforms during puberty is the amygdala, a center that connects emotional response with sensory information. This brain region is what allows us to perceive threats, set boundaries, recognize emotions in other beings, and connect with others.
The amygdala’s size and number of connections are altered during puberty which affects how young people read others’ behaviors and interact with their own emotional states. It can lead to misreading of situations or others’ behavior as teens grow and learn to work with perception.
It is true that young people are processing a lot of emotions – and sometimes let it get the better of them. But we often unfairly judge young people for being poor decision-makers when research shows that teens are just as capable as adults in making complex, thoughtful decisions. It is only in high moments of stress that young people find it challenging to make rational decisions.
Understanding this can alter the way we think about puberty and young people. It can help us learn how to give spacious opportunities and choices to young people, to trust their complex understandings of intellect and emotion, and find ways to keep their stress-levels low in moments of decision.
Nucleus Accumbens – Sensation Seeking
Teens’ sensations and pleasure centers experience a lot of growth during puberty. Nucleus accumbens are a segment of the brain that are part of our pleasure and reward system. Research shows that the increase in hormone levels during puberty heightens the activity in this area of the brain.
Nucleus accumbens are stimulated by pleasant experiences such as social connection, building a skill, or eating a delicious meal. When these pleasure neurons are activated, the brain automatically releases dopamine – our feel-good hormone. For this reason, seeking out new experiences, exploring, and having personal connections will become especially important for a young person.
But an important piece to this pleasure-seeking growth is how these reward centers connect with higher cortical regions in the brain. The cortex is the grey matter that makes up the outer layer of the brain. Higher cortical regions are known as “association areas” that balance sensory input with action.
These regions help control impulse and regulate emotions, and they are developing well into our 20’s.
During puberty, young people’s pleasure centers are rapidly connecting with higher cortical regions in the brain. The fact that these cortical regions grow at a slower pace brings a degree of balance in the development of the brain during puberty and allows for greater neuroplasticity as young people’s brains change.
This means that young people have greater adaptability in forming their identities and building skill sets. It also means that the experiences teens choose to have and the connections they choose to form with others could have just as much or an even greater effect on the brain than the chemical changes.
Wow. Puberty is awesome!! There is so much possibility for growth, learning, and new experiences. And while it might seem to parents and young people that puberty is in control, YOU have more control than maybe you think. It’s important to find the experiences that will light up your changing brain and forge new connections.
We are so grateful that NJIN exists to be a place where young people can find those new experiences and connections they are naturally seeking out.
To read more about the importance of the kind of experiential learning NJIN offers, check out our blogpost about it. Be sure to visit our home page to discover how we can help you gain new, important experiences as your mind and skill sets are growing. And be sure to view the video that inspired and informed this blogpost by clicking here.
Remember – puberty is awesome, it is natural, and you are in control!