Home Biologist Biologist David Bueno: ‘Humans are the only species with an adolescent phase’ | science and technology

Biologist David Bueno: ‘Humans are the only species with an adolescent phase’ | science and technology


Adolescence is a time full of physical and mental changes, with many unknowns for parents and teenagers. Why are teenagers so indecisive? Why are they rebelling? And why do they want to go to bed so late? Biologist David Bueno, 56, has headed the neuroeducation department at the University of Barcelona since 2019. In his last book published in Spanish, The adolescent brain, it seeks to answer some of these burning questions. Bueno has studied the human brain for more than a decade and quotes psychologist Jaume Funes to explain his view of adolescents: “We should love adolescents most when we think they least deserve it.” In other words: the more alien the behavior of teenagers can seem, the more they need their loved ones by their side.

Question. You say adolescence makes us human, what do you mean by that?

To respond. We are the only biological species that has an adolescence as such. All animals pass directly from infancy to youth simply because they have nothing new to learn. They learn what they need to learn when they are young and go straight from youth to adulthood. Humans have such a complex brain and we have to learn so much that these two steps are not enough.

Q What changes does the brain undergo during adolescence?

A. A huge number. A part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with the most complex behaviors, is rebuilt, affecting planning, thinking, decision-making and emotional management, or self-awareness. This is the area that undergoes the most change precisely because we have to let go of all our childish, adult-supportive behaviors to start directing our own lives. There will be no more adults who constantly support or protect us. This reconstruction is what makes the behavior of adolescents sometimes so curious and so difficult to grasp from an adult point of view.

Q What differentiates the adolescent brain from the adult brain?

A. Essentially the capacity for self-management. Teenagers mature, so they have times when they can manage their own behavior, but many times when they can’t. The adult brain is much more capable of making medium and long-term plans, of setting goals and of knowing how to find the inner resources to move towards these goals. Teenagers try it all.

Q. What factors determine adolescent behavior?

A. There are genetic factors that influence adolescent behavior, but of course there is not much we can do about it. Where we can have an influence is in the way we raise children. Their childhood experience has a direct effect on the perceived support they receive at home. It is fundamental for the development of a young person. Negative parenting means little or no emotional support, and in the most extreme cases it involves rejection and hostility towards the children themselves or a lack of consistency between reward and punishment. Positive parenting is the opposite: emotional support that is not overprotective (if overprotective, it becomes negative or may become negative), with its own challenges and responsibilities unique to the age of the child. There is a consistency between reward and punishment. Teenagers who have had a negative upbringing are generally much more impulsive and therefore less reflective. The reflective area of ​​the brain does not mature as efficiently, and so they may be more likely to exhibit aggressive or depressive behaviors.

Q What are the biggest dangers for teenagers?

A. The main dangers are a negative childhood in the broad sense, and an adolescence where they do not find support from the adults around them. Emotional support continues to be fundamental in adolescence. It is a time when they are very lost. They have to live with adults, they often have to behave like them, but they have no experience of the adult world because they have never been adults. Any attempt to change attitude should be done in a positive way, as an opportunity.

A teenager only stops behaving like a teenager when his adult environment accepts and values ​​him.

Q What are the main ways to help a teenager live through those years normally if you’re an adult in their life?

A. Emotional support, because the adolescent brain mimics what it finds around it, and we adults need to be an example of what we would like it to be, and encouragement for it to find its own motivation and meaning in life.

Q. The words adolescence and puberty are often used as synonyms, what is the difference between the two?

A. Puberty is the beginning of adolescence, with the first hormonal changes in the reproductive system. Adolescence is everything else, so all these new behaviors, the typical sociability of youth and adulthood, the maturity in thinking about things and emotional management. The biological onset is the hormonal activity of puberty, but late adolescence is a mix of biology and culture. A teenager only stops behaving like a teenager when his adult environment accepts and values ​​him with the same rights and responsibilities as another adult.

Q Sociability, as you just mentioned, is a trait of humans in general, but especially of young people, especially with people their own age. How has the pandemic affected adolescent brains?

A. In a terrible way. I wrote a report for UNESCO on the very marked increase in anxiety, stress, sadness and depression, precisely due to the social isolation of the pandemic, and often coupled with a feeling of guilt. I read that if the first or second wave didn’t calm down, it was because teenagers weren’t playing by the rules. I don’t know if they complied or not, but many adults didn’t either. This feeling of guilt made them feel bad because they thought, “I can’t go out, I can’t socialize, and besides, it seems like I’m also to blame.

Q Teenagers have a different sleep schedule. What is the biological reason for this difference, compared to other stages of life?

A. The biological explanation is that there is a delay in the production of the hormone melatonin, which is what makes us sleepy at night. This cycle is delayed by a few hours on average when we reach adolescence. We don’t know why this happens, but there are several hypotheses. This is very important in education, because adjusting the courses to their pace would force them to start a little later. At the very least, they shouldn’t do the most demanding subjects first thing in the morning, because the brain hasn’t woken up yet, biologically speaking.

Q. Generation after generation, we deplore that young people are becoming more and more irresponsible, immature and selfish. Why?

A. Even the ancient Greeks said so, and it’s just not possible that teens have gotten progressively worse since then, because we would have died out centuries ago. The adult brain prevents us from understanding adolescents because our brains are very linear. All the stupid things we did as teenagers are all but forgotten, and we only remember the key moments that led us to become who we are today. This makes it difficult for us to understand teenagers and that is why they seem to get worse.