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Teen Brain: It's All About Me

Sensitivity to Others' Feelings Underdeveloped in Teen Brain, Studies Show
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Sept. 7, 2006 -- It may be a "me first" world in the typical teen brain.

Brain scans show that teen's brains may still be developing when it comes to sensitivity to other people's feelings.

And in a second study, the same researchers found that adolescents and preadolescents are slower at predicting how another person might feel in a given situation.

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, PhD, of University College London, worked on the two studies.

"We think that a teenager's judgment of what they would do in a given situation is driven by the simple question: 'What would I do?'" Blakemore says, in a University College London news release.

"Adults, on the other hand, ask: "What would I do, given how I would feel and given how the people around me would feel as a result of my actions?'" she continues.

Blakemore presented the findings from the studies today in Norwich, England, at the BA Festival of Science, held by the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

What Would You Do?

In the brain scan study, Blakemore's team looked at 19 teen girls and 20 women in London.

The teens were nearly 15 years old, on average, and attended a selective private school. The women were 28 years old, on average, and were university students or graduates.

Each girl or woman viewed a series of questions displayed on a computer screen.

Some questions were "What would you do?" scenarios that required an intentional choice, such as: "You are at the cinema and have trouble seeing the screen. Do you move to another seat?"

Other questions focused on cause and effect, such as: "A huge tree suddenly comes crashing down in a forest. Does it make a loud noise?"

Participants answered "likely" or "not likely" to each question by pressing a computer key.

Meanwhile, their brains were scanned with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Teen Brain, Adult Brain

The brain scans showed different areas of brain activity on the questions involving personal choice.

The teens' brain scans showed more activity at the superior temporal sulcus located towards the back of brain, while the adults' brain scans showed more activity in the medial prefrontal cortex located towards the front of the brain.

"These results suggest that the neural strategy for thinking about intentions changes during adolescence," the researchers write.

Brain activity on the nature-related questions was similar for teens and adults, the scans showed.

In the second study presented today, Blakemore's team found that preadolescent (average age 8.6 years) and adolescent (average age, 13) boys and girls were slower than adults to answer questions about how a fictional character might feel in certain situations.

In that study, 74 preadolescents and adolescents were compared with 38 adults (average age 24). The researchers found the adults were quicker at choosing how a third person might feel in a described situation.

No Teen Bashing

The findings don't mean all teens are insensitive, or that all adults are empathetic.

But adults do seem more sensitive to other people's feelings, and their brain scans appear to back that up, according to Blakemore and colleagues.

Of course, grown-ups have an advantage: They're older than teens.

Experience may nudge the brain to become more sensitive to other people's feelings, the researchers note.

So, insensitive teens may not stay that way.

Blakemore's team can't say how or when teens' sensitivity skills develop.

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