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Journal of Youth Studies
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Hard wired for risk: neurological
science, the adolescent brain and
developmental theory
Judith Bessant
a
a
Global Studies, Social Science and Planning , Royal Melbourne
Institute of Technology University , Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Published online: 12 Jun 2008.
To cite this article: Judith Bessant (2008) Hard wired for risk: neurological science, the
adolescent brain and developmental theory, Journal of Youth Studies, 11:3, 347-360, DOI:
10.1080/13676260801948387
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13676260801948387
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DEBATE
Hard wired for risk: neurological science, the adolescent brain and
developmental theory
Judith Bessant*
Global Studies, Social Science and Planning, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University,
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
This article considers claims now being made about the adolescent brain. It points out
why some of those claims are problematic for methodological, social and philosophical
reasons. Attention is given to how some youth experts and others have used this
research by relying on and reinforcing prejudicial stereotypes about young people as
intrinsically problematic. Questions are asked about history and what that teaches us
about such claims and what the implications are of uncritically accepting this latest
discovery in terms of rights and responsibilities. One response of those wedded to the
adolescent brain model is to increase the age at which young people can engage in a
number of activities. I argue that if we deny young people responsibility and
opportunities to build a repertoire of experiences and to learn how events connect to
emotions, then we are denying them the chance to develop their capacity for good
judgment. The response proposed in this article rests on a different proposition that
some young people are sometimes at risk not because their brains are different, but
because they have not had the experience or opportunity to develop the skills and
judgment that engagement in those activities and experiences supply.
Keywords: adolescent brain theory; politics; risk; youth rights; science
Can we look in a teenage brain and find, hidden in its folds, some answers to even the most
fundamental questions, such as why an otherwise tame and timid teenager goes out one
morning and puts a big silver ring in her nose. As it turns out, yes. . . . they are crazy according
to a primal blue print; they are crazy by design. (Strauch 2003, p. xiv)
In recent years a number of youth experts have claimed that they can scientifically explain
what has long been known; namely that young people are a high risk group who are
irresponsible, troublesome, rebellious, and even criminally inclined, and that this can be
explained in terms of the biological development of the human brain. This latest scientific
research explains the well known fact in terms of how and why their brains are different
(Baird et al. 1999, pp. 195199, Giedd et al. 1999, pp. 861863, Rapoport et al. 1999,
pp. 649654, Sowell et al. 1999, pp. 859861, Bechara et al. 2000, pp. 295307, Thompson
et al. 2000, pp. 190193, Strauch 2003, Dahl and Spear 2004, Steinberg 2004, Carr-Greg
2006, Galvan et al. 2006, pp. 68856892, Reyna and Farley 2006a,b, Steinberg 2007,
pp. 5559). This new trend in public discourse about young people that has emerged in the
past decade relies on data produced by a new generation of technology, and has resulted in
a resurgence of interest in developmental theory.
*Email: Judith.Bessant@rmit.edu.au
Journal of Youth Studies
Vol. 11, No. 3, June 2008, 347360
ISSN 1367-6261 print/ISSN 1469-9680 online
# 2008 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/13676260801948387
http://www.informaworld.com
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According to some researchers, non-invasive brain scan technology reveals that,
contrary to long-held ideas that the human brain was fully grown by the end of childhood,
the adolescent brain does not complete development until people get into their early to
mid-twenties (Reyna and Farley 2006b, pp. 144). Those who popularise the idea of the
adolescent brain are so confident that they argue that anyone questioning or rejecting the
science specifically around adolescent brain development is a bit like being a member
of the Flat Earth society (Carr-Greg 2006; see also http://www.alaska.net/ clund/e_
djublonskopf/Flatearthsociety.htm).
This development and support for this discourse is of concern to those interested in
securing the basic rights of young people, and this article aims to shed some critical light
on the issues, and to encourage debate. How credible is such talk of the adolescent brain?
What kind of science does it rest on? How should we think about it?
These questions need addressing because this research has potentially serious
implications for how we know and treat young people and how youth is experienced.
This research is used to encourage governments and others (i.e. schools, courts) to extend
their governance of young people. This suggests the need for careful scrutiny of both the
research in question and the conclusions and implications for policy-making being drawn
from that research. It matters, for example, that this research is being used to explain why
young people are different enough to warrant special treatment, including their exclusion
from activities that mark normal adult capacities like voting, drinking alcohol and driving
cars, and why they need closer monitoring. As one adolescent psychologist claimed:
. . . a quarter of all fatal road injuries (27%) and hospitalizations (26%) are in the age group 17
to 25 years which is disproportionately high . . . this is because of the adolescent brain.
(Carr-Greg 2006)
At a youth conference I attended, one expert and keynote speaker addressed a 400-
strong audience claiming that expecting a 16 year old to be able to reason is like asking
your dog to recite Shakespeare. This claim was accompanied by a humorous story
reporting on the stupidity of the psychologists teenage son, a story used to support claims
that the adolescent brain causes risky and other worrying behavior and to demonstrate
just how lacking in reason and good judgment young people are. Similar funny stories
reinforcing negative stereotypes of teenagers can be read in books like Strauchs (2003)
popular American text The Primal Teen. Indeed according to some experts, education and
learning may be a waste of time. As Barbara Strauch reports, although we like to think
maturity is based on experience, for
. . . adolescents, we . . . have to recognise that learning may not count for much until the
underlying brain structures are in place. (Strauch 2003, p. 34)
It is worth recalling that despite all the talk of discovery and novelty, this research and
the proposals it informs are not new. Similar claims can be found through the nineteenth
and twentieth centuries. At regular points, phrenologists, those promoting sex brain
research, criminologists like Lombroso and his idea of biological regression, eugenicists,
and more recent geneticists have claimed that biological or anatomical structures can be
used to explain gender inequality, madness, deviance or criminality.
This historical record suggests the value of a clear-sighted assessment of the science and
politics that is being used and why this research needs to be treated with care and
scepticism. In this article I offer a critical analysis of what is problematic about the new
adolescent brain research and especially the uses to which perfectly respectable and
rigorous diagnostic devices like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are being put. Without
348 J. Bessant
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doubting the diagnostic value of the new MRI technology, I suggest that we need to
remember that this research, and the use that is being made of it by people not directly
involved in the scientific research, must be situated in the context of a rich history of debate
about the brain and mind, as well as a similarly long history of scientism that has seen
scientific research used against vulnerable groups.
We need firstly to acknowledge that there is a distinction between the research findings
themselves, how they are interpreted and the uses being made of them. I argue that
rigorous scientific research has much to offer on the condition that we think critically and
clearly about what is being proposed. We need also to pay attention to important ethical
questions. Amongst other things, teen brain theory highlights the need for human rights
advocates to be mindful of the ways such discoveries can be used to reinforce prejudice
against and ill-treatment of groups like young people who already lack significant human
rights.
Given the scale and complexity of the issues relevant to teenage brain theory, the
science of the brain generally, the mind and human action, and noting the distinction
between the research findings and the uses made of them, I limit myself to identifying and
questioning some of the key assumptions and claims that either inform this research or the
conclusions drawn from it. They are as follows:
. Claims that what we see happening inside the brain determines cognitive processes,
decision-making, and human action.
. Claims that certain developments in the brain predispose young people to act in
specific ways.
. Prejudicial assumptions that young people are inherently troubled themselves and
trouble-makers.
. The assumption that adolescents are a homogenous category in terms of how their
brain development predisposes them towards certain dispositions (i.e. high-risk
behavior, irrationality, gambling, sleeping in late, etc.).
This article begins with an account of the claims now being made about adolescent
brains. I point out why some of those claims are problematic for methodological reasons
(e.g. why we are not free to assume simplistic causal links between brain activity and
perception and action). Then I turn to how some youth experts have used this research by
relying on and reinforcing prejudicial stereotypes about adolescents as intrinsically
problematic. Attention is also given to what history can teach us about the dangers of such
claims and what some of the policy, legal and social implications are of uncritically
accepting this latest discovery.
The adolescent brain
According to some recent neuro-scientific research, adolescents have brains that are
different to adults (Giedd et al. 1999, pp. 861863, Sowell et al. 1999, pp. 859861,
Thompson et al. 2000, pp. 190193, Reyna 2004, pp. 6066, Reyna et al. 2005, pp. 77106,
Reyna and Farley 2006b, pp. 144). These brain differences are then used to explain why
adolescents are unlike older age groups such as middle-aged or elderly people and that we
therefore ought to deal with them differently.
The recent development of diagnostic tools like MRI has enabled the production of
brain images of young people. These claims that young peoples brains are different rely on
scientific research carried out by neuroscientists at places like the National Institute of
Mental Health, UCLA, and Harvard Medical School research that is derived from MRI
Journal of Youth Studies 349
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scanning techniques. According to proponents of adolescent brain theory we can literally
see mental processes, experiences and emotions working as they happen through this
technology. MRI-based research is cited as evidence in support of claims that adolescents
brains are still developing in regions like the frontal lobe and that they are structurally
different in important ways from the brains of fully developed adults, which largely has to
do with the ratio of white to grey matter. Those images and the accompanying
measurements show patterns of growth or shrinkage in various structures of the brain
and in processes like the pruning of neurons.
This research indicates that, contrary to what we previously thought, our brains do not
finish developing at an early age; rather, growth continues until our early to mid-twenties.
Moreover, this development takes place in the frontal lobe cortex of all young people.
Given that the prefrontal cortex plays a part in executive decision-making and judgment, it
has been suggested that structural differences between the adolescent and adult brains
explains why young people fail to exercise self-constraint and thus tend to get themselves
into a lot of trouble. According to neuroscientists like Giedd et al. (1999), frontal lobes
help people do the right thing and are one of the last areas of the brain to reach a stable
grown-up state (see also Spear 2000). This it is said tells us why young people are
irresponsible and are unreasonable. Reyna and Farley (2006a, p. 60) also observe this view
when they say: . . . the immature adolescent brain may be responsible for much of the risky
business that young people engage in.
In short, those differences in brain development/structure are used to explain bad/
aberrant conduct said to characterise adolescent risk-taking, such as criminality,
impulsivity, fast driving, incapacity to reason, irrationality, lying, rebelliousness, drug-
taking and nose piercing.
How and what we know about young people makes a difference to relationships
between older and younger people, thereby affecting the ways we educate, care for and
generally treat young people. This knowledge and what we do with it matters given the
proliferation of youth or adolescent professionals or experts in the field. As mentioned
above, already there is strong evidence that it is impacting on our education, health, legal
and social welfare systems (Garland 2004, Steinberg 2007, pp. 5559). As the American
psychologists Reyna and Farley note:
This is growing evidence that risk taking may be hardwired into the adolescent brain has
influenced the way that we and other psychologists now view troubled teenagers and the
standard intervention programs aimed at preventing their risky behaviour (2006a, p. 60)
What remains unclear, however, are the conclusions about human conduct (if any) that can
actually be drawn from those imaging studies. What is equally unclear are the conclusions
that can be made about the processes involved in making judgment and engaging in
practical reasoning (i.e. how we consider what we ought to do, and how we use ethical
values).
Critique of claims we can reduce human activity back to brain structures
There are many issues that deserve consideration in the attempts that have been made to
clarify the relationship between the brain and the mind (Searle 1984, 2004, Bechtel et al.
2001, Gregor 2004). There appears to be a general consensus that MRI technology offers
opportunities to obtain helpful images of anatomical structure that can play a role in
elucidating the functioning of human brains. Equally there are problems for those experts
running a brain structure-determines-human conduct line.
350 J. Bessant
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To begin, there are technical limitations with MRIs that include poor temporal
resolution (Bonhoeffer and Grinvald 1996, pp. 5597, Pine 2006, pp. 983986). And while
they are good for mapping brain activation and giving clear pictures of anatomical
structures and measurements like the dynamics of neural networks by tracking the amount
of electrical activity produced by the brain and maps of other responses across different
temporal and spatial scales, they cannot reveal changes in mental function or operations
that occur over time and that may involve factors like experience and emotions. What they
do provide is information that can be used to make inferences that what is being witnessed
is associated with brain structures, perceptual and cognitive processes.
Apart from such technical questions there is also value in highlighting some of the
assumptions being relied on. I refer for example to the assumption that the signals detected
are a measure of neural activity, when the activities being seen may be influenced by other
factors like non-neural developments that take place beyond the brain, in other parts of the
body. I also refer to the assumption that when we use MRI scans we are actually observing
in a direct way our thoughts, ideas, or experiences like perception, reasoning, intuition or
physical and mental sensations, when there is no clear evidence that a signal in X causes
mental activity Y.
On these points, some people materialists, physicalists and reductionists (and
others) take the philosophical view that X is nothing more than its physical components
and that we can understand its complexity by reducing it to its constitutive elements and by
studying the interaction between those elements. Proponents of this view argue that mental
activity, conscious experience (thought, etc.) are properties that come from complex neural
network. Others like cognitive scientists and idealists take a different view and say that
the mind is not reducible to neuro networks (Searle 1984, 2004, Pinker 2007). In other
words, understanding the physical or material is not enough for knowing consciousness,
thought, and so on, that opportunities for such insight lie outside modern science, or least
(for some) that science needs to be broadened to incorporate things like language,
experience, history and intentionality if we are to having any chance of understanding the
mind, brain and consciousness (Hameroff 1998, pp. 119124, Pinker 2007). Moreover, for
philosophers like Searle, core categories like consciousness have their own ontic weight and
as such are not reducible to anything. He also argues that we cannot get beyond our own
cognitive states to study relationships between them and the reality they cognise (Searle
1984).
I refer also to the assumption that signals may register as being in a particular part of
the brain even when there is no neural activity, or indeed that there is neural activity that
gets registered but there is no signal (Logothetis et al. 2001, pp. 150157). Further, different
parts of the brain, like different parts of the body, may have different metabolisms,
different oxygen requirements and different blood flows, the subtleties of which may not be
accurately reflected in the readings taken by MRI scans especially when taken by BOLD
fMRIs (i.e. blood oxygen-dependent responses) (Logothetis et al. 2001, pp. 150157). In
light of the above, can we assume that visual images of brain activity taken via MRI
technology can explain the processes of cognitive or emotional judgments?
Gazzaniga et al. (2002) also do not accept the simple idea that a single specific brain
structure determines complex human cognitive or emotional judgment. They observe that:
Major identifiable systems can be localized within each lobe, but systems of the brain also cross
different lobes. That is, those brain systems do not map one-to-one onto the lobe in which they
primarily reside . . . (Gazzaniga et al. 2002, p. 74)
Journal of Youth Studies 351
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For some cognitive psychologists and neuro-scientists, contrary to the widespread
assumption, brain imagery is not an integrated and unified observable fact. Rather, it is
made up of a diversity of distinct functions. In other words, there is no single one-to-one
relationship between brain anatomy and mental experience of a behavior or perception.
Indeed perception is the product of many different areas that are situated in different parts
of the brain. Thus a key to understanding how imaging can inform knowledge of human
consciousness and conduct is to realise that complex functions like perception, our
capacities to recall events, to reason and to act are the product of different processes that
are carried out in a single region of the brain. Moreover, such abilities can be accomplished
in a number of different ways, which involve different combinations of processes (Kosslyn
and Andersen 1992, Kosslyn et al. 2006, Hubbard 2007, pp. 3761, Moulton and Kosslyn
2008, pp. 182192).
Another leading neuroscientist, Damasio (2006) is similarly critical of attempts to
reduce human activity back to brain structures. He notes how mental processes themselves
are very complex. His own work on the prefrontal lobe indicates that, when deciding what
to do, humans rely on a mix of cognitive, ethical and emotional elements in their decisions
making about the future or in reacting to events as they unfold. According to Damasio
these capacities are not reducible back to brain structure, but rather they involve complex
interactions between our experiences, our emotional well-being, our relations with people
and the spaces we are in, as well as the neuro-anatomic structures and functions of our
brain. Damasio suggests that human reasoning and action is the product of complex
global process that entail various parts of the brain, the body (organs, nervous system,
hormones) and our emotions/feelings. He argues that
. . . human reason depends on several brain systems, working in concert across many levels of
neuronal organization, rather than a single brain centre. Both high level and low level brain
regions, from the prefrontal cortices to the hypothalamus and brain stem, co-operate in the
making of reason. (Damasio 2006, p. xx111)
As the emergent field of social neuroscience acknowledges, many of our capacities to
make good, rational and appropriate judgments depend on an intricate interplay of
brain structure, experience and social learning. It entails connecting the fabric of social and
cultural life to complex neurobiological events. The amygdala (a group of neurons in the
medial temporal lobes in the brain) are said to be critical for emotional learning and also
play a role in how people evaluate social situations. Phelps et al. (2000), using MRI scans,
studied the activities of the amygdala in a group of white Americans who were asked to
look at pictures of unfamiliar black and white faces. Most white subjects showed greater
amygdala activity in response to black faces when compared with white faces: these
responses tallied with socially biased indirect responses to black faces. The suggestion was
that there are brain structure activities, but that the cognitive or emotional content of the
observable responses are culturally and historically specific and diverse because they are
learned.
This observation also draws attention to a basic methodological problem relying on
data generated in a laboratory, and then extrapolating that onto situations outside of the
laboratory. The MRI technology has been used to generate images of people engaging in
activities requiring solving puzzles or making judgments. MRI scans are an invasive
technology with the subject encased in a large piece of equipment with significant noise
levels. That factor, plus the attempt to construct laboratory conditions where as many
variables as possible are removed from the experimental situation, suggests why we are
not free to infer from those abstracted, purified and highly invasive settings regarding
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real-world settings. The same kind of caveat about relying on scientific measurements in
laboratory settings has been commonplace in physics since Heisenberg made the point
about the intrusiveness of measurement. Put simply, the idea is that any measurement of
matter will always disturb that which is being measured and its momentum, and vice versa.
In the social sciences, similar cautions have been common regarding measurements taken
in laboratories since Mayo drew attention to the effect the experimental process has on
experimental findings (the Hawthorne effect).
There are also many questions regarding the value and credibility of the assumptions
made about the nature of human conduct and its relation to the brain and to the mind
that are used to drive much of the neuro-scientific research (see for example Searle 1984,
Mathews 2005, Beakley and Ludlow 2006, Rakova 2006). Despite the confidence in the
idea that neuroscience is a source of important insights, what is clear is that we continue to
face enormous empirical mysteries about how the brain and mind actually work.
These observations suggest a need for caution before making large simple statements of
a causal or explanatory nature about brain structure and behavior of any person or group
of people. They suggest we cannot assume that specific mental activities and human
actions are caused by changes taking place in the brain. They suggest we are not entitled to
say firstly that it is true that all young people are innately disposed towards irrational
action, irresponsibly and ethical incompetence; and secondly that this behavior is the result
of their adolescent brains.
Questioning these claims does matter because many people are drawing on and linking
neuro-scientific research to widespread prejudices and myths about young people being
incapable of rational thought, self-restraint and good judgment. It matters also because
such arguments can have the affect of inhibiting social change like that which involves
greater recognition of young peoples human rights and the provision of more
opportunities for them to enjoy full and active citizenship. As Stephen Jay Gould
observed, no arguments against social change can be more effective than claims that
established orders already exist that reflect certain innate intellectual and moral capabilities
(Gould 1981).
Science, prejudice and learning from history
The more general problem that such claims point to is the relationship between rigorous
scientific research and various social interests and social prejudices. This can be a two-way
relationship. People wishing to engage in rigorous research can be sidetracked by the
pursuit of socially prejudiced research agendas. It involves research in which the questions
and methods being used are subverted by the drive to produce research that produces the
answers already known to be true. One expression of this is Herrnstein and Murrays
(1994) The Bell Curve linking race to intelligence. Here I refer to the possibility of
misusing research by misrepresenting or selecting only the elements of that work which suit
a particular interest, and by legitimating social prejudices or inequitable treatment of
people by appealing to scientific research is an old and dangerous practice.
Modern societies generate significant social inequality as well as prejudicial stereotyp-
ing about certain sections of the population who experience a disproportionate burden of
social inequality. A cursory survey of the kinds of treatment young people have been
subjected to through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century reveals a
history of prejudicial, abusive, harmful policies and actions (Jenkins 1996, Gill 1997,
Haebich 2000, Manne 2001). Indeed young people have routinely been denied recognition
or protection of their human rights (National Childrens and Youth Law Centre and Youth
Journal of Youth Studies 353
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Law 2007). Much of this record of abuse, exploitation and violence is attributable in part to
the claims of scientism being taken too seriously by governments and policy-makers.
Like indigenous people, women, or people with disabilities, there are many examples in
the past and present of claims that young people are not only physically, intellectually, or
emotionally different, but are different in ways that make them deficient or defective when
set against adult norms.
The politics of this tradition may be illuminated in many ways. Duster reminds us that
in the fifteenth-century Spain of Torquemada, questions were routinely asked about
biological and social differences between Christians and Jews for the maintenance of the
natural superiority of one group over the other.
Just before and during the Inquisition, the most important biological argument for the
persecution of the Jews centered around the concept limpiezza de sangre or purity of the
blood . . . Limpiezza decrees were used to prohibit intermarriage and . . . required that a
candidate for a particular ecclesiastical or secular post prove his Christian ancestry. (Duster
1990, p. 1)
Later down the track, enlightened experts like the Italian Lombroso linked delinquency
and criminality in the 1880s with certain heritable physical features and behavioral
attributes. Skull shapes and size, jaw lines, receding foreheads, thin upper lips and the
setting of ones eyes were said to be indicators of atype of person likely to be anti-social.
By the end of the nineteenth century the ground was well prepared for the naissance of a
modern form of eugenics.
That Eugenics was launched by Galton roughly between 1880s and to his death in
1912. By that time eugenics had become a modern and progressive movement, disliked by
traditionalists and admired by rationalists for its potential to explain and to cure long-
standing social problems from poverty and unemployment to alcoholism and madness.
Eugenics had a checquered history through the twentieth century, and until the 1930s
eugenicists were at the forefront of advanced professional and intellectual movements.
Eugenics and the wider range of naturalistic, biological explanations characteristic of
Burts work on troubled adolescence were in the foreground of functionalist sociology and
psychology in the first part of the twentieth century. In that period it was held that social
adjustment indicated normality and the evidence of correct scientific diagnosis and
treatment: the essence of the progressive discourse about delinquency in particular and the
anti-social in general (Kamin 1975, Lewontin et al. 1984).
The science of child and adolescent development was also part of this progressive
tradition. Many researchers and practitioners in developmental theory persistently made
claims about who the child and adolescent were and what their capabilities were. Such
science made clear what their position is in the social and moral order, and what they can
and ought to do (Gilligan 1988, pp. viixxxix). Since Stanley Halls (1916) pioneering work
in biogenetic psychology, scientists Burt (1925/1965), Piaget (1932/1965, 1940/1967),
Erikson (1950/1963) and Kohlberg (1981) have explored the cognitive and moral
development of people, telling how young people develop in universal, uniform ways
and through life-cycle stages. This means, for example, they are capable of particular
cognitive or moral thinking at age-specific stages (Erikson 1950/1963). The English
psychologist Cyril Burt (18891869) wrote about The Young Delinquent, arguing that
working-class young people were inclined towards criminally and had lower intelligence
than their affluent peers based on scientific instruments like IQ tests (Burt 1925/1965).
Sir Cyril Burt set out to scientifically establish the influence of heredity on the
intelligence of young people, and provides an exaggerated case of what can go wrong. Burt
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did not exclude the social influence, but argued that a proper scientific explanation for the
distribution of intelligence and ofthe problem child rested on the recognition of a number
of causes, heredity being the chief one. He argued that intelligence was innate and
genetically transmitted along with general cognitive ability (Burt 1938). It was through his
now infamous technique of using monozygotic twins separated at birth that he argued
intelligence was essentially heritable (Hearnshaw 1979) In Burts case it was tragic,
especially for the generations of working-class young people, that he faked much of the
research on which he gave advice to policy-makers, which led to the English 1944
Education Act, an Act premised on Burts fact that working-class people were less
intelligent and needed less education.
Psychometry and the measurement of intelligence were central to such explanations of
adolescent behavior (namely, links between hereditary, intelligence, delinquency and social
class). Around this, other elements of psycho-social mechanics of maladjustment were also
positioned. The logic of this prescribed that the child and adolescent needed to accept the
priority given to the expectations of adults who were responsible for their care in the home
at school and in the streets. Bad behavior, a display of disrespect, swearing, anger, lying,
fighting, and other kinds of inappropriate behavior like wearing unacceptable clothes,
truancy and low achievement in school were all the stigma and clear indicators of
maladjustment and/or pathology, or what today might be called being at risk.
This was part of a long and ongoing bio-political tradition that attempted to explain
teen anti-social behavior. And while there are some differences between these older and
more recent discourses, one claim is consistent. Central to claims made about the
adolescent brain research is the assumption that all adolescents universally lack
rationality, self-restraint and good judgment. This is not a warrantable assumption for
several reasons.
It is ill-advised to accept the premise that adolescence is an age-based cohort that is
uniform and homogeneous, or that those who fit that category experience the same
developments, in the same ways, at the same stage regardless of their different social
contexts. Typically this assumption is accompanied by underlying prejudice that
adolescents are a problem to themselves and to others. This is because teenagers or
youth are bad, anti-social, deviant, irresponsible, risk-takers, delinquent, rude and bad
tempered.
There is the corollary problem that all adults are models of restraint, good judgment,
pro-social behavior, responsibility and moral conduct. According to proponents of
adolescent brain theory, all people over 2325 years of age are presumed to have the right
values, and behave appropriately against the standards for pro-social behavior that young
people ought to aspire to but fail to achieve.
Both assumptions are problematic because they are prejudiced and have no evidence to
support them.
Despite claims to the contrary, most young people are normal. Like the rest of the
community they display an array of normal tendencies to ill-health, criminal behavior,
community involvement, and political or moral beliefs. In respect to crime, young people
are less inclined to do the serious and destructive things that cause harm like serious
assault, homicide, rape, armed robbery and white-collar crime. These findings are common
for Australia, the USA and Britain (Federal Bureau of Investigation 2007, Home Office
2007). This is not deny that some young people come under the gaze of police and find
themselves in juvenile justice systems, but so too do indigenous people, and typically for
the same reasons a combination of prejudice and their high visibility.
Journal of Youth Studies 355
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Unfortunately claims that young people are badly behaved, maladjusted and simply
overly exuberant has always made excellent copy for the media (Cohen 1972, Pearson
1983). The media as Stanley Cohen and others have pointed out are well practiced in
generating moral panics about teenage hooligans, gangs and crime waves perpetrated
by feral adolescents. Certainly, representing young people as objects of concern makes for
entertaining reading and story-telling. Such accounts also help alleviate anxiety for some
by providing opportunities for expert assurances and guidelines for parents and adults
about how we ought to behave towards problematic teenagers. As Davis observes:
In a society that is increasingly oriented around ideas of fear and difference, youth and the idea
of unruly fanaticism have become intrinsically linked, and youthfulness has become
emblematic of social decline and a marker of otherness. (2007, p. 7)
Further, those wanting to point to a link between a biological (i.e. anatomical and
structural) explanation and problematic behavior face a problem namely that the thing to
be explained is relative and changeable while the explanation is invariant. Both the concept
of self-restraint (i.e. good judgment) and lack of restraint (or poor judgment) are highly
variable and relative because good and bad behavior is socially, historically and culturally
specific. They are defined and constituted by community standards, institutions (e.g.
religion) and the attitudes of specific social elites. Further as Gilligan et al. (1988) argue
what constitutes good judgment or age-appropriate conduct varies according to who you
are; it is dependent on your gender, age and ethnicity. This raises the question: how is it
that across time and space adolescents always act in irresponsible and unreasonable ways
when self-restraint and good judgment are so variable and culturally specific?
The suggestion that a universal factor/determinant (the structure of the adolescent
brain) produces invariant and universal forms of bad or anti-social or risk-taking
behaviors on the part of adolescents is not credible. What constitutes responsible or
good conduct is subject to variability across time and space. In a racist culture, for
example, shaped by white supremacist values, many young white people will adopt
appropriate attitudes (like contempt for black people) that will be approved of by the
elders of their culture and be reinforced and rewarded. Those of us living in another time
and place will judge those racist dispositions to be shocking, unacceptable or
irrational. Likewise, in some traditional contexts, being a good and virtuous young
woman is to be obedient and subservient while in other more modern social milieu such a
manner is activity discouraged.
In short, there is no good reason to treat all young people as a homogeneous category
of disturbed anti-social, risk-taking trouble-makers.
Conclusion: why getting our thinking straight matters
How we understand and respond to the issues and questions raised matters because they
are vital for thinking about what we owe young people. Moreover, arguing that a difference
between groups of people is both scientifically identifiable and a true reflection of their
naturally limited intellectual and moral capacities, which is also used to explain bad
behavior, is the kind of argument that can prevent changes towards the augmentation of
young peoples basic human rights.
Those running the adolescent brain line start with a basic and widespread prejudice
about young people being difficult, risk-taking, troublesome, and even deviant. They then
draw on scientific work to support and embellish their prejudice. There is no credible social
scientific research to support the idea advanced by proponents of the adolescent brain
356 J. Bessant
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that all young people, by virtue of the adolescent brains or otherwise, are different, risk-
takers anti-social irrational or immoral. Similarly, the accompanying prejudice that
adults are models of rationality, morality and good judgment and are pro-social is not well
grounded. Indeed claims that young people are naturally irrational or anti-social entails
the same kind of prejudice displayed by those who spoke of the Jewish brain, the female
brain or the Negro brain to explain how those groups were both different and
problematic.
The certainty with which proponents of adolescent brain theory promote the MRI-
based brain research to bolster and reinforce anti-adolescent views is a clue for
appreciating what is happening. Most scientists understand that normal science is
characterised by uncertainty and controversy. Most cognitive neuroscientists understand
that simplistic brain structure determines cognition claims are off the mark. The main
challenge is to establish how and in what ways social learning and social experiences
interact with the physiology of brain processes.
The ways in which that information has been framed and interpreted has too often
been silently informed by powerful prejudices about young people. Moreover, the
discursive power of inquiry in the natural sciences and the social sciences is such that
these prejudices are frequently fast-tracked into various laws, policies and practices as well
as the very experience of being young.
Within the scientific literature there is limited consensus about the import of the data
for quite basic issues about brain function, topology or development of cognitive capacity
(Reyna and Farley 2006b, pp. 144). Yet, despite this reservation or constraint, there is
sufficient support for adolescent brain theory and the idea that it predisposes young
people towards high-risk behavior that it has already made serious inroads into policies
and practices in education, legal and justice systems, medicine and the human services
(Bechara et al. 2000, pp. 295307, Chambers and Potenza 2003, pp. 5384, Dahl and Spear
2004, Steinberg 2004, 2007, pp. 5559, Galvan et al. 2006, pp. 68856892, Reyna and
Farley 2006b, pp. 144).
While I did not have the space in this article to analyse the appeal and success of this
discourse, I suggest that it owes something to its resonance with already held assumptions,
and with what we already know about youth. In short, it affirms prejudices and taken-
for-granted assumptions while offering authoritative scientific explanations for those
views. Moreover, it draws on a long-standing and progressive discourse about social
adjustment and the evidence of correct scientific diagnosis and treatment.
The success of adolescent brain theory owes much to popularisers and their skill in
producing sensationalised soundbites designed to reassure, generate fear and shock. Its
success relates to the capacity of journalist, editor and publishers to recognise the
newsworthiness of such stories. I refer to youth experts who recognise the general appeal of
such stories, to those who realise how it can enhance their own authority and expert status
and demands for their work on infotainment-style day-time television, in popular
magazine advice columnists and in authoring popular comic-cum-serious teen-guides
books on troublesome youth.
While there also neuroscientists who argue that risky decision-making and adolescent
thrill seeking is best understood by reference to their brain and the slow maturity of the
cognitive control system, they tend to communicate in a less accessible scientific format
and in less publicly available learned academic journals. However, they too play an
important role in informing what we know of the adolescent, and in dong so help shape
the ways young people are known, treated and how being young is experienced.
Journal of Youth Studies 357
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If there are doubts that young people are biologically destined to be irrational and anti-
social because their brains are different, then there are good grounds for concern. Too
many young people still do not have their basic human rights acknowledged or protected.
My concern is that promoting accounts that teenagers brains makes them do foolish
things works against the promotion opportunities that young people can learn through
experience and thereby have the chance to develop in all the ways they can.
I suggest that if we do owe to young people the right to be supported and to have the
kinds of experiences that enable them to develop, then it is important to think critically
about what is being assumed and claimed. This is because if we take teenage brain claims
seriously then we should promote policy ideas such as:
. increasing the voting age to 23 or 25;
. modifying education practices and various intervention programs because we are
wasting our time and resources encouraging young people to learn because their
brains are too immature;
. increasing the age of sexual consent and legal liability to 2325;
. increasing the legal age limit at which people can lawfully enter into marriages to 23
or 25;
. not allowing young people to own property or have a credit card until, say, age 25;
. keeping young people in the Childrens Court until they are 23 or 25;
. increasing the age at which they can legally drink to 23 or 25;
. increase the age of compulsory schooling to, say, 23 or 25.
This approach is problematic not only because it breaches a number of young peoples
human rights, it is also problematic because if we accept that emotions and experience are
essential to rational thinking, good judgment and normal social behavior, then such
prohibitions will actively work to prevent or inhibit young people from having the
encounters they need to develop intuition, insight and perception. Indeed, prohibiting
young people from engaging in certain activities is counter productive because they lose
opportunities to develop intuition through experience, and yet the quality of our intuition
is critical for good decision-making:
. . . depends on how well we have reasoned in the past; on how well we have classified the events
of our past experiences in relation to the emotions that preceded and followed them; and also
on how well we have reflected on the successes and failure of our past intuitions. (Damasio
2006, p. xix)
If we deny young people responsibility and opportunities to build a repertoire of
experience and to learn how events connect to emotions, and if we deny them the chance
to reflect on what works and what does not, then we are denying them the chance to
develop their capacity for good judgment.
As mentioned above, the responses of those wedded to the adolescent brain model is to
increase the age at which young people can engage in a number of activities. The response I
propose rests on a different proposition that some young people are sometimes at risk not
because their brains are different, but because they have not had the experience or
opportunity to develop the skills and judgment that engagement in those activities and
experiences supply. This points to a central problem with adolescent brain accounts; that
is, it begins with a prejudice (they are different irrational and deficient) and then
threatens to expand the civil and social disadvantages that already severely affect too many
of our young people.
358 J. Bessant
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