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Teen Brain Development

NIDA explores in this video the intriguing similarities between the processes of brain development and computer programming. The analogy helps us understand why toxic environmental factors like drugs, bullying, or lack of sleep can have such a long-lasting impact on a teenager’s life and can be used to empower your children or students with information they need make better decisions.

Transcript

(light music)

[Mila speaking] As teens, people are always telling us what we can't do.

Do you ever wonder why that is?

Why can't I stay up late?

What could happen if I just played for 15 more minutes?

Who cares if I smoke a joint every now and then?

Let's face it, adults may mean well, but they can't really explain why they won't let us do this stuff.

The thing is, there's actually a really cool explanation, and it has to do with our brains.

From the outside, the brain of a newborn looks just like a smaller version of an adult brain, but there's a big difference.

There's a ton of stuff that still needs to be programmed into a young person's brain.

That's where our life experiences come in.

How we interact with what's around us shapes our brains until we're in our mid 20s.

We can't feel our brains changing, but they are super busy building circuits and programming.

So how does this happen?

Every little thing that happens to us can change our brain in huge ways.

At short distances, our experiences can make or break connections between brain cells.

By guiding the creation of circuits, experiences shape our perceptions, memories, and everything that makes us unique.

But they also affect our brain across longer distances.

This involves the construction of thick bundles of fibers that connect different brain regions.

By creating this complex network, experiences help increase the brain's bandwidth, allowing it to work better and better.

We've gotta keep in mind, these short and long-range connections are influenced by everything we do and everything that happens to us.

But this is awesome news.

It means we are the programmers of our brains.

Every decision, good or bad, influences how our brain develops.

Let's talk about taking drugs.

For example, pretend this is the keyboard you are using to program your brain.

Using drugs just for fun or to get high would be like scrambling the letters on the keyboard.

Now, if you scrambled the letters on the keyboard after the program is written, that can lead to temporary errors or make it hard for the program to run for awhile.

But if you scramble the letters while the program is being written, the program can incorporate catastrophic long lasting glitches.

This is why teens are better off without drugs.

We are in the middle of coding our brains and drugs can cause real problems that can last a long time.

And yet, drugs are just one of the many possible ways of scrambling our keyboards.

For example, not enough sleep, lack of exercise, or eating too much junk food can also harm our brain programs.

Yeah, I get it, it's annoying to be told what we can and can't do.

But I would rather focus on my ability to shape my brain through smarter decisions.

It turns out, we have far more control than we thought.

We can use this information to choose our own paths and give ourselves the best possible futures.

This page was last updated March 2019