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Why Your Gifted Teen May Act Anything But Gifted

Part Two of "Brain Basics": how the frontal lobe and the amygdala affect teens.

In my last article in this series, we discussed the importance and power of visualization in the long-term retention of information. Visualization, as you may recall, lies primarily in the occipital lobe of the brain, which is located at the back of the skull. (Imagine if you ran a lap at your local pool—a true no-no, of course—and slipped backward on a slick of water. It would be that portion of the brain and the tender portions below that would receive the majority of the impact and is at least partially the reason you might very well see stars or black out before the lifeguard got to you.)

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Today we’ll take a look at the opposite side of the brain—the frontal lobe—and see how it interacts with a very small portion that is located deeper inside, almost centrally. What you will find fascinating is how the frontal lobe and the amygdala particularly can affect the behavior and choices that teens make on a daily basis. In fact, in a page or two, you will understand precisely why even your gifted teen (child or student) can sometimes act anything but intellectually advanced.

Let’s start with the frontal lobe: it’s all about critical thinking and inhibition. Many readers might recall that this portion of the brain (located right behind the forehead, about an inch or so above the eyes) is associated with critical thinking. It’s the frontal lobe that is engaged, primarily but certainly not exclusively, with evaluating arguments, planning courses of action, and balancing your checkbook. But what some readers may not know is that the frontal lobe is also the part of your brain that allows you to inhibit yourself. It’s that part of the brain that gives you the self control to not blurt out that what you just heard your boss say in the morning office meeting was truly kind of idiotic. It’s the properly functioning frontal lobe that prevents you from getting up and walking around that boardroom just because you feel a bit restless. In fact, it’s the frontal lobe’s inability to inhibit oneself that causes kids with ADD to be prescribed stimulants like Ritalin. Ritalin excites the frontal lobe, effectively “kicking it online”—which then allows the child to better control his impulses, or inhibit himself.

And then there’s the amygdala: the seat of emotion. Not much larger than a pinto bean or so, this is the portion of the brain that first reacts as you feel a strong emotion. Love, anger, happiness, sadness, excitement… all of these are originated in the amygdala (though what you subsequently do with those emotions—kiss, fight, laugh, etc.—is channeled elsewhere).

Put those two parts of the brain together in a teenagerand therein lies the rub of the matter. During adolescence, as a child goes through puberty, the amygdala is extremely active, nearly always in a state of stimulation. At the same time, research shows us that the frontal lobe is also not fully matured. (In fact, the frontal lobe won’t be until the early 20s.) So when you combine those two equally important facts together at the same time, you begin to understand why even your gifted teen might make poor decisions.

Consider this simple, common example. A teen who has just recently gotten his license is in the car with friends on the way to a Friday night football game. He is driving at a safe speed but then, up ahead a hundred yards away, the traffic light has just turned yellow. Rationally, we know, he should slow down and prepare to stop. But what does he the teenager do? He floors the gas, accelerating to beat the light. Hopefully all goes well and everyone is uninjured on the other side of that intersection. But what has just happened in that teen’s brain?

  1. He sees the light change and his amygdala (as we said, veryactive in adolescence) is excited by the possibility of outracing the yellow light. (His desire to impress friends in the car may not help much either.)
  2. His as-yet-fully-developed frontal lobe has less capacity to assist him in thinking rationally about his decision to beat the light, and…
  3. His as-yet-fully-developed frontal lobe does little to help him control his impulse to mash his foot down on the accelerator.
  4. The result is a close call at the intersection—and a ticket for running the light that turned red just as he reached the point of no return.

Please also note that this brain response is the exact, precise process that occurs when teens (and others, to be fair) receive and then 'decide' to respond to text messages while driving. Only this time, the text notification tone is the amygdala  excitor, not the yellow light.

Later, when you as a parent or a teacher ask him about his decision (“C’mon, you know better than that! Why would you do such a thing?! Now your insurance rates are going to be sky high!”) you get a weak, confused, shrug of the shoulders in response. Or you receive an over-the-top amygdala reaction full of yelling or crying or something in between. But wait, there’s even more to consider….

In all people, regardless of age, alcohol consumption exaggerates these effects. Alcohol use simultaneously excites the amygdala and deadens the ability of the frontal lobe to do its job. This is why bar fights occur. The 135 pound man who has had too much to drink gets angry at the results of the football game on the restaurant’s television. He doesn’t have the sense of mind to think better about challenging that significantly larger guy at the other of end of the bar who has been good-naturedly teasing him about his team’s performance all night. Too many beers later, the smaller man’s amygdala feels extra angry and his deadened frontal lobe is even less able to inhibit his impulse to strike out at a man that he would surely know he can’t beat. Soon, the police are arriving and hauling both individuals away for booking. Of course, the converse is true too: That 135 pound drunken man might feel a tad too,… ahem, affectionate, shall we say?… towards the lady who is seated next to him. His drunken frontal lobe does little to help him control his awkward flirting, nor does it help him realize how thoroughly disgusted she is by his sloppy advances. (And he better hope that her boyfriend is a patient, sober guy when he returns from the restroom.)

So why does this understanding of frontal lobe and amygdala interaction matter? If all you do is wait and hope for the day when your child grows out of the teen years, then this understanding of the brain’s interplay has little value, sadly. And, of course, if you are a high school teacher, you will never escape the teen years of your students. But where this information might be of value is in its ability to give you a different perspective and, with that, even some degree of patience. When your teen “freaks out” that you have offered eggs “three mornings in a row!” for breakfast, or that you as a teacher have “stapled the handouts all in the wrong order!”…well, might I suggest that you not explore too deeply why that is suddenly a crisis? There are, and there will always be, bigger issues more worthy of your energy.

Christopher Taibbi specializes in gifted education. He has coauthored several books on teaching.

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