If you’ve read about the teen brain, you know it’s mostly about a child’s final stage of brain development, during which the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is wired for foundation critical thinking skills.
In one respect, wiring the PFC is like every other aspect of brain development that happened in early childhood. If you think about it, each stage happened with the child exerting an amazing amount of effort. Circuits don’t form in the brain without lots of repetition. And the window of readiness for development is finite—it opens and the child has only a certain number of months or years to wire the foundation. After that, the natural course of pruning away unused, unconnected brain cell connections is complete.
But little kids get it done because they’re motivated! Recall how hard your child worked while learning to walk—months of relentlessly trying. Your example and encouragement helped, and your child was strongly motivated to persist, attempt after attempt, until the brain circuits for walking established themselves. Only then was your toddler able to toddle—to walk on two feet from place to place without falling down. In the years since then, he or she built on this foundation, learning to run, dance and perform in sports.
Then think about how much effort your toddler invested in learning to talk. It’s almost unimaginable. But again, the motivation was there. It was frustratingly difficult for your child to convey what she wanted without being able to talk. So she willingly invested the effort every day for several years – an amazing amount of work.
PFC development is no different. Your child will have to do the work! Fortunately, there’s much your child can do to make it happen. But will the motivation be there?
Unlike previous periods of brain development, the motivation to exercise critical thinking and executive skills is usually not there. While toddlers are desperate to learn to walk and talk, adolescent children don’t know anything about the PFC, what it does, what it takes to wire brain circuits for foundation mental skills, or why these skills are so important to their future. Furthermore, the ongoing process of PFC development is invisible and silent. Teens have no idea that something momentous is happening to them, so why would they be motivated to achieve the best result?
The concern is whether your teen will do the work to wire skill circuits in the PFC before pruning eliminates unused brain cell connections.
I often refer to the PFC as “the smart part of the brain.” Once you discover the many functions of the PFC, you’ll appreciate why. To generate interest and motivation, it helps for a young adolescent to learn how important the PFC is—what it does and why its functions are so important.
Basically, the PFC “connects the dots”—it associates and relates everything else that’s going on in the brain. It receives input from all areas of the brain—information about the external world, body sensations, emotions, perceptions, memories, concepts, and thoughts. Then it makes sense of these inputs by relating them to each other. For example, it compares past memories with present events to discover cause-and-effect relationships. It even forms images of the future based on this understanding.
This ability to relate and make sense of things—and to remember what was learned—is what makes human beings more powerful intellectually than other species. Yes, all mammals have a cortex, and some of these animals have a functioning prefrontal cortex. But their tiny PFCs are more limited than that of a human being. If you’ve lived with dogs or cats, or if you’ve observed squirrels or raccoons, you know they show signs of intelligence. But their capacity for reasoning or impulse control is primitive. Consequently, they almost never consider the possibilities before taking action. They rely mostly on stimulus-response reactions, while humans (thanks to our impressive PFC) have the capacity to think before we act—stimulus-analysis-response.
This ability is a game-changer. It’s why humans are the dominant species on Earth, not monkeys, dogs or cats. This special aspect of brain power goes by several names (executive function, critical thinking, conceptual thinking, higher-level thinking) and takes many forms. Here are several of the most familiar and impressive functions of the PFC.
Understanding. As we learn how things relate to each other, we form our view of the world. How is a sofa different from a couch? Why are old, hand-made chairs often more valuable than newly manufactured ones? What do certain cloud formations have to do with the potential for rain? What’s the difference between the stratosphere and the exosphere? Like humans, cats have two eyes on the front of their heads; but do they see the way we do? Is it more effective to work alone or in a group? The questions human beings are capable of asking, and the answers we can come up with, are endless.
Foreseeing consequences. One way of comparing inputs is to observe how one event follows another. Is there a relationship between the first and second events? Does one event cause the other? If this cause-and-effect relationship is real, then later when we observe the first event again, we can predict the result. The more we make these kinds of connections, the better we can imagine future consequences and manage our lives. The advantages this basic mental skill gives us are endless.
Learning from experience. It is said that experience is the best teacher, but the lessons of experience don’t always follow the things that happen to you. Put another way, it’s possible to go from event to event, or from one mistake to another, and fail to learn anything from these experiences. But if a person analyzes an experience by asking thoughtful questions about it, one can understand what happened and be prepared handle similar experiences in the future. Questions such as: What happened? Why did it happen? What were the consequences? And what could I have done differently to achieve a better result?
Evaluating. When we compare an action, a process or a product to a standard of quality, we judge how good or effective it is. Concepts of quality are learned and stored in the PFC, which it uses to create judgments about what’s going on in the world around us. How entertaining was that movie? How safe is that toy? How nutritious is that food? How effective was the group’s work process? How logical was that argument? The more concepts of quality one stores in memory, the smarter the PFC becomes.
Reasoning. It isn’t easy to be logical. Like the game of chess, which requires logical thinking, a person can acquire an impressive array of reasoning skills. Every healthy brain has a PFC, but its power depends in large part on how many reasoning skills one has learned. When you study books about critical or analytical thinking or take courses in logic or philosophy, you learn that there are careless or fallacious ways of thinking. In other words, you have to program your brain to be logical. In the absence of these special mental skills, you will easily make false assumptions about the world.
Attention and focus. As I said earlier, the PFC is heavily interconnected to other parts of the brain. It receives real-time input, and it can also direct the activities of other areas of the brain. For example, when we dream, remember or imagine, the PFC sends signals to the visual cortex to create images. If the PFC gets input from the amygdala, which sends fight-or-flight alarm signals, the PFC can quickly evaluate this signal by checking sensory input, and then send a signal back to calm the amygdala. If something interesting is noticed by the senses, the PFC can evaluate how important the information is, and then direct the brain to return attention to something else. In this way, it’s possible to learn how to manage attention, ignore distractions and stay focused.
Self-regulation and impulse control. When a small child gets angry, he might express his rage by physically hurting someone. While this is a common behavior among young kids, it’s possible for them to learn to be aware of their emotions, to consciously pause until the emotions subside, and consider a more benign and effective response. These mental activities take place in the PFC. And yes, teenagers, who often react emotionally while their PFC is under construction, can practice these skills, too. If they don’t, they may act in anti-social ways and even grow up to be adults who have trouble controlling their emotions.
Problem-solving. In a typical day, you encounter dozens of problems. The car won’t start. A bank account is overdrawn. After gaining weight, the suit you need to wear to a funeral no longer fits. Your computer gets hacked. The lawn mower won’t start. You can’t afford the tuition to your child’s choice of colleges. Things wear out and break down. Or your life situation changes and you aren’t sure what to do. Or you have an opportunity and you aren’t sure how to handle it. Or you want to improve a relationship. Troubleshooting a problem is a mental skill, and the PFC can be programmed to identify why things are no longer working. Often we need to look at a problem in a new way. We need to identify our options and evaluate which ones will best meet our needs. These skills are handled in the PFC.
Decision-making. At the end of problem-solving, the next step is action. What will you do to address an issue? Will you react emotionally? Will do what you always do in that situation—fall back on your habit? Will you let someone else decide for you? Or will you think consciously about what to do? Often in problem-solving, we identify more than one way to fix a problem or create an opportunity. This requires us to foresee and evaluate the risks, rewards, costs, and benefits of each option—a mental process that can only happen in the PFC. In the end, does your solution feel right? People who have learned decision-making skills are better equipped to deal with the inevitable challenges of life.
And more. Other amazing skills, such as setting goals, planning a logical series of steps to achieve a goal, getting organized and managing the execution of a plan, and indeed, scrapping a plan in order to create a new one when life throws new challenges at you, also are functions of the PFC—if it’s wired to perform them.
Will your child do the work during adolescence to wire the circuits in his or her PFC for these foundation skills, which are vital to happiness and success as an adult? With this new knowledge, parents no longer need to leave it to chance and hope for the best. The more young people learn how important these skills are, the more motivated they’ll become.
The context for this article is the subject of Chapters 1 and 7 of my new book: How Your Teen Can Grow a Smarter Brain. 1. Read the book. 2. Share it with your teen. Let them in on the secret!
Also, you can download 4 FREE guides, including “The No. 1 Way to Nurture the Bond with Your Teen.”