rebelling against low expectations

Forget Everything You Know About the Teenage Brain


“Teens are irresponsible because their brains aren’t fully developed yet.”

“Teens can’t handle grown-up tasks because the prefrontal-cortex doesn’t reach maturity till age 25.”

You’ve heard these statements and others like them. They have guided public policy initiatives, informed parenting techniques, and enforced the myth of adolescence.

Well, guess what? They’re flat-out wrong.

The latest advances in brain science demonstrate that teenagers hold far more potential than we realize. And the key to unlocking that potential? Challenges. New experiences. Exercising responsibility. Doing hard things.

In fact, researchers now believe that teens are wired to do big, bold, difficult, scary things — and when we limit them and shelter them, they may fail to develop, or worse, they will act out in foolish and reckless ways.

B.J. Casey, a neuroscientist at Weill Medical College of Cornell University writes, “I used to think that if I locked up my son till he was twenty-one, I’d be okay. But the brain does not mature in isolation.”

Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. In an article for the Wall Street Journal entitled, What’s Wrong With the Teenage Mind?, she writes:

“Brain research is often taken to mean that adolescents are really just defective adults — grown-ups with a missing part. Public policy debates about teenagers thus often turn on the question of when, exactly, certain areas of the brain develop, and so at what age children should be allowed to drive or marry or vote — or be held fully responsible for crimes. But the new view of the adolescent brain isn’t that the prefrontal lobes just fail to show up; it’s that they aren’t properly instructed and exercised.

Gopnik concludes her article by saying, “The good news, in short, is that we don’t have to just accept the developmental patterns of adolescent brains. We can actually shape and change them.

Of course, Gopnik is talking to adults. But her message applies to us too. We don’t have to accept the myth of the teenage brain. We can develop, shape, and change our brains by exercising and using them.

And this cuts both ways. By failing to exercise responsibility, tackle new challenges, and develop new skills as teens, we can be dramatically limiting our potential for a lifetime.

Jay Giedd is a neuroscientist at the National Institutes of Mental Health. He recently spearheaded research that showed a tremendous surge in brain growth and potential during the teenage years that can either be utilized or wasted as the brain “prunes down” in the twenties.

He believes that what we do during our adolescent years — whether building a business or playing video games — affects how our brains develop. In an interview with PBS Frontline, he shares some remarkable (and scary) new research:

“I think the exuberant growth during the pre-puberty years gives the brain enormous potential. The capacity to be skilled in many different areas is building up during those times.

But the pruning-down phase is perhaps even more interesting, because our leading hypothesis for that is the ‘Use it or lose it’ principle. Those cells and connections that are used will survive and flourish. Those cells and connections that are not used will wither and die.

So if a teen is doing music or sports or academics, those are the cells and connections that will be hard-wired. If they’re lying on the couch or playing video games or MTV, those are the cells and connections that are going [to] survive.

It’s a time of enormous opportunity and of enormous risk. And how the teens spend their time seems to be particularly crucial. If the ‘Lose it or use it’ principle holds true, then the activities of the teen may help guide the hard-wiring, actual physical connections in their brain.”

In light of this research doing hard things as a teenager becomes critical. What we do during these crucial years will affect us for the rest of our lives. And according to the latest research, our potential to expand our comfort zones and learn new skills is greatest as teenagers.

So while growth and improvement can happen throughout life, we will never have so much brain matter to work with again. This really is a “use it or lose it” season of life.

Let’s use it.

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Photo courtesy of Antoine Walter and Flickr Creative Commons.


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About the author

Alex and Brett Harris

are the co-founders of and co-authors of Do Hard Things and Start Here. They have a passion for God and for their generation. Their personal interests include politics, filmmaking, music, and basketball. They are both graduates of Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia.


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  • I believe that you are presenting a false dichotomy here: it need not be said that you must either accept that A): a young person’s brain isn’t as capable of responsible and mature behavior as an adult (which is as basic to common sense as saying that a 70 year old is generally more wise than a young person) or B): actually, you can make your brain do whatever you want it to do so be sure to not play video games and instead focus solely on developing good life skills The research – which to be clear, is still in the earlier stages all things considered – presents a view wherein behavior in every season of life shapes the brain. Certainly, current scientific data suggests that core formative brain development occurs in the period of time commonly called ‘adolescence’ and that after that period in the twenties, change occurs slower but that is far more subtle than this article makes it sound. If anything, the thrust of the research seems to say that in adolescence, we have the opportunity to develop skills faster and easier than we will later in life….similar to the young child who learns a foreign language more quickly and easily.

    • Hey Anthony, I think we agree with each other more than your comment makes it seem. For instance:

      1) I agree that the research is still under development.

      2) I agree that we can still grow and change after adolescence.

      3) I agree that older people are generally wiser than teenagers.

      It seems you are responding more to the tone of my article than to the actual content. The false dichotomy you outlined isn’t present in this post.

  • Thank you once again for showing us the value of doing hard things!
    It reminds me of what the Bible says about trials. It says that trials can produce perseverance. It also says in another place that perseverance is necessary to make a Christian complete and lacking nothing. God has a purpose for everything He brings into our lives. Why should we ever doubt Him, and why should we not rejoice in our sufferings??? God is doing for us things greater than we could ever ask or think, and yet we doubt that He even loves us! God has been teaching me that His grace to me is just enough for today. Not yesterday. Not tomorrow. He works His will through everything, ESPECIALLY THE HARD THINGS!!! I hope this is encouraging to at least one other person. Right now I am going through one of the toughest times I have ever had in my life (so far). I don’t understand everything, and that may very well be a good thing. How else can I learn to trust and take refuge in God alone? God is good, and He is faithful, and I can trust Him. Hallelujah!

    • Thanks for sharing this, ProgramGuy. Praise the Lord for this perspective. I’m sure you have other supports in your life, but please feel free to reach out on this website if you need encouragement or support.

      • Thanks. If it weren’t for all the supports in my life, I wouldn’t have a perspective like that. And honestly this is the perspective that I am trying to have, but then I start to doubt again and again. I’m so glad that God doesn’t write people off after they make bad choices. I’m really excited about what God is doing in my life, but so often it seems distant. Something that has helped my a lot is the Bible. God keeps showing me just the right verses. It’s almost like He’s talking to me. Haha. That IS the primary way God talks to us.
        Brett, this blog has been very encouraging to me. Thanks for rebelling against low expectations.

    • Sam, this was encouraging to me. I can also say that I’m going through one of the most difficult times in my life right now. So many new struggles have come up in the past year and a half that have put me at my wit’s end. I think about James 1:2-3 a lot because it gives me hope when I remember that the testing of our faith produces endurance. This was a great reminder that God knows what He’s doing and that He can and will help me through. Thank you for sharing!

    • Wow. This is so great! I know you posted this an eternity ago, but it’s SO encouraging! “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son…” (Rom. 8:28-29) Through trials, God is transforming us into the very likeness of Jesus!! I mean think about it – it’s mind-blowing! How awesome is our God?!

  • This is a great reminder (and reason) that we need to be growing as a person, and not wasting our time. I’m glad you wrote this!

  • Wow! Great article! I’ve been told that what I do now affects what I’ll do later. Jay Giedd’s research, in particular, is a stirring reinforcement to that! I am truly living in a time of enormous opportunity and enormous risk… a scary, sobering, but inspiring reminder! My every thought, every word, and every action today contribute to my every habit and my whole character tomorrow!

  • Love this article, especially because there is a little science in it. #nerd 🙂 Teenagers not only can do hard things, but actually are biologically equipped to! Creation is amazing.
    I believe God used the book Do Hard Things in my life to help me get out of my comfort zone so I can live in a way that has impact on the world around me. Alex and Brett, what you guys do is absolutely amazing; never stop!!!

    • “Teenagers not
      only can do hard things, but actually are biologically equipped to!” Love it!

      In Proverbs 22:6 God tells us to “Train up a child in the way he should
      even when he is old he will not depart from it.”

      I have heard of
      the “Building new neural pathways in the brain, by going off the beaten path”
      idea. That you can train yourself to react in circumstances differently to your
      normal/natural response. We can train ourselves to trust God in circumstances of
      fear, to obey God at times we really didn’t want to, if we keep choosing God
      over the world’s options. So I guess that “rebelling against the world’s low
      expectation” is not only possible, but God made us to do it!

  • Great article! I would like to add to the statement made about how older individuals can help “shape and change” the mind of an adolescent. While it is true that an outside source of wisdom and guidance is extremely beneficial when maturing both spiritually and mentally, the onus cannot be put on those aids to make sure that the teen’s mind is properly focused. If I were to act out in foolish ways, I could not blame my parents or other older persons in authority for my lack of responsibility. It is my decision to behave how I choose to, and if change in my attitude is neccesary, the effectiveness of any advise would depend almost entirely on whether or not I possess the desire to do better and Do Hard Things. So if you feel that you need to change the way you look at your life and start living more actively for God, don’t wait for someone to come can give you a kick before you start anything. Go out and begin looking for opportunities to work for God and people who can give you guidance on how to do so. The Bibile says to “seek wise counsel”, not “lie down and wait for wise counsel to find you somehow when it gets around to it”.

    • That is such a great point- along with pushing ourselves to live the life we’re called to live, we also need to be proactive in seeking out mentors to guide us in our journey of doing hard things. Going against the current of our culture is hard, and it’s easy to fall if we don’t have accountability from those older, wiser, and spiritually mature.
      Thanks, Alex and Brett, for this post! This is so encouraging.

      • You’re so welcome, David and Tatum! You both have really good points. We can’t expect other people to prepare us for life. We need to be proactive in obedience to Christ. The responsibility falls on our shoulders and we’ll give an account to God for how we spent our young adult years. At the same time, part of that proactivity is seeking out mentors to guide us and provide accountability. If we’re wise, we won’t try to do hard things on our own without counsel from older, wiser, more mature believers.

  • I really like this article. This shows that there is no excuse for slacking off. For taking the easy road or for not doing something because “you just can’t do it.” Thanks so much!

    • Hey Ashley,

      I wish I had the perfect answer for you, but I don’t. That’s not an easy situation.

      However, I would suggest that you get a mentor for your faith (A wiser and older women and your case (and when I say old, I just mean older then you)). Also, this might be a great way for you to lead by example. If people see you doing hard things and being sucessful, they might get currious and follow in your footsteps. As far as connecting with other teen believers, I don’t know the answer to that.
      God bless,
      – Trent

    • I would say try to find a youth group, even if it’s a bit of a distance. I live 15-20 minutes away from my church, but you should see if there’s a youth group closer than that. Youth group is important because you could find good mentors and other Christians your age there, and there’s supposed to be good, biblical teaching. (I’m saying ‘could’ and ‘supposed’ because some churches alter the way the Bible is interpreted.) As for doing hard things, it could be working harder at school, being nice to your parents and siblings if any, and setting aside a time everyday to be with God(reading your Bible, prayer, devotional, etc.) I’ll pray for you!

  • I think I’ll use it, thanks! But isn’t it just amazing how God has made our brains so incredible? Wow.

  • Incidentally, studies have also shown that your brain is specifically wired as a teen to prioritize differently. My point being with an adults ‘logic’ it would be stupid to leave home and separate from your parents and survive by yourself… cause its damn hard when you start out. But to mature we need that break from our folks and we need that different perspective and we need that bit of recklessness! Really awesome how each season in our lives we get given precisely the tools we require to move forward and grow if we but so choose. Ok philosophical rant done, soz just finished my first draft for an article so i’m in a rather ‘bubbly mood’ 😛

rebelling against low expectations

The Rebelution is a teenage rebellion against low expectations—a worldwide campaign to reject apathy, embrace responsibility, and do hard things. Learn More →