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TEDGlobal: How Can We Better Reach Teenage Brains?

Social learning research could highlight much more nuanced ways to help adolescents learn, cognitive neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore argued at TEDGlobal in Edinburgh, Scotland, this afternoon.

In spite of the focus on the importance of early learning, "It's not all over in early childhood. The brain continues to develop throughout adolescence and into the early 20s," said Blakemore, director of the Blakemore Lab in London.

Yet 40 percent of teenagers around the world don't have access to secondary education, and education for teenagers is a relatively recent phenomenon, she said. She argued in favor of more in-depth research on how adolescents learn.

Synaptic pruning, the process of "fine-tuning" neural pathways in the brain, begins in force in the prefrontal cortex, the decision-making area of the brain, during adolescence, Blakemore explained.

Prior research has shown that teenagers can see wide swings in IQ. In particular, teenagers make huge strides in learning to navigate social situations and social learning. Her research has found that adolescents have different physical brain activation patterns in the prefrontal cortex and use different behavioral problem-solving methods to respond to social situations than adults use.

For example, in a task that required subjects to follow directions by taking into account the perspective of another person, adults made mistakes about half the time, but adolescents performed much worse. Similarly, teenagers are much more likely than adults or children to take risks in social situations—a finding that has proven particularly problematic when it comes to teenage drivers.

Follow my Twitter discussions on TEDGlobal @sarahdsparks.

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