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Synaptic Pruning Developmental Psychology


Adolescents are a mystery to many adults - especially their parents. It is a time when three of the great changes of human life occur:
  1. the ability to reproduce,
  2. the establishment of an identity, and
  3. the formal commencement of logical, rational, reasoned thought. 
Synaptic Pruning Developmental Psychology

However, the attainment of logical thinking is fairly patchy from where I sit, and some people don't seem to attain it till the age of 28 or thereabouts.

There is a long history of successful people having fairly dodgy adolescent years, and this has been reflected in their school reports. For example: in the early Seventies, Stephen Fry - the English actor - received a report on which his headmaster wrote, "He has glaring faults and they have certainly glared at us this term." And Norman Wisdom, the actor, got a report that said, "The boy is every inch a fool, but luckily for him he's not very tall."

So let's take a walk through the brain and the mind of your average adolescent. Now this is dangerous territory indeed. The likelihood of tripping over the odd torrid sexual fantasy, encountering an obsession with privacy that would baffle the most secretive hermit, or the risk of being crushed by the wild pendulum of mood swings awaits us. Let's have a look at some of the major changes.

Synaptic pruning
It is always worth thinking about the biological and evolutionary underpinnings of development and learning. I was recently having a discussion with a group of freshman boys which went like this: "What? ... Dunno ... Alright ... S'pose ... As if ... Whatever!"

Between 10 years of age and puberty, the brain ruthlessly destroys its weakest connections, preserving only those that experience has shown to be useful. The adage here is "use it or lose it" - and this applies at any age. "Synaptic pruning" continues throughout life, but occurs mostly during the late childhood and teenage years so that the synapses that carry the most messages get stronger and the weaker ones get cut out. As many as 30,000 synapses may be lost per second over the entire cortex in the early adolescent brain, leading to an ultimate loss of almost one half of the synapses that were present in the pre-adolescent period. All this helps with refinement and specialization. This is why the experiences we give children and young people between their ninth and eighteenth years are so important.

Jerome Bruner has suggested that the reason humans are dependent for so long is so they can learn about their specific social environment. We survive by learning how to get on in almost any setting, by living by our wits, and by being extraordinarily adaptable.

The brain at this time is re-structuring in order to become cleverer and more efficient. It is important to capitalize on this by helping young people to create patterns of thinking and habits of learning that are productive. By doing this, we put into place trajectories of thinking and learning that lead to success.

Implications for parents of bright adolescents 

Two fairly useless questions to ask early teenagers are:
  1. "What were you thinking?" (because they probably weren't)
  2. "Couldn't you see she [or he] was frightened?" (because they can't).
Teenagers do well with high levels of supervision: they need you as much as, if not a bit more than, when they were little. To find out more, you can check out Synaptic Pruning Developmental Psychology.