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October 8, 2009

The Prefrontal Cortex… what junior high is all about

by Chris Lindholm

Johan Lehrer writes in How We Decide:

The maturation of the human mind recapitulates its evolution, so the first parts of the brain to evolve – the motor cortex and brain stem – are also the first parts to mature in children.  Those areas are fully functional by the time humans hit puberty.  In contrast, brain areas that are relatively recent biological inventions – such as the frontal lobes – don't finish growing until the teenage years are over.  The prefrontal cortex is the last brain area to fully mature (p. 114). 

This developmental process holds the key to understanding the behavior of adolescents, who are much more likely than adults to engage in risky, impulsive behavior…  A recent study by neuroscientists at Cornell, for example, demonstrated that the nucleus accumbens, a brain area associated with the processing of rewards – things like sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll – was significantly more active and mature in the adolescent brain than the prefrontal cortex was, that part of the brain that helps resist such temptations.  Teens make bad decisions because they are literally less rational (p. 114). 

The problem-solving abilities of working memory and the prefrontal cortex are a crucial aspect of human intellingence.  Numerous studies have found strong correlations between scores on tests of working memory and tests of general intelligence.  Being able to hold more information in the prefrontal cortex, and being able to hold on to that information for longer, means that brain cells are better able to form useful associations.  At the same time, the rational brain must also stringently filter out all extraneous thoughts, since they might lead to unhelpful connections.  Unless you are disciplined about what you choose to think about – you won't be able to effectively think through your problem.  You'll be so overwhelmed by all those incoming ideas that you'll never be able to figure out which ones are genuine insights (p. 131).

Anyone else think we should be paying attention to these developments?

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