The nervous system changes dramatically during development. It is a time when the brain is greatly affected by the environment and experiences of the individual. This is what neuroscientists call neuroplasticity. It is present in adulthood, but is particularly evident and important during development. The nervous system is molded to efficiently analyze the environment presented.
Studies of the development of the nervous system during adolescence have revealed marked changes occurring throughout the teen years. The brain doesn’t look like that of an adult until the early 20s. Over the course of childhood the outer layer of the nervous system, the cortex, increases in thickness and then during adolescence thins. Late adolescence is a time of brain development when the highest levels of intellectual development are being produced by refinements in the structures of the nervous system. The thinning of the cortex is thought to reflect a pruning of cortical systems making processing more and more efficient. It is making the nervous system more efficient and tuned to the environment in which it is immersed.
It is thought that many of the emotional and behavioral problems during adolescence occur due to the fact that the neural systems underlying emotional reactivity and expression are fully developed well before the development of the higher processes that regulate and control the emotions and the responses to the emotions. As a result, adolescent behavior can be overly determined by emotion. This can potentially explain the high rates of teen suicide, reckless, thrill seeking behavior, and social anxiety. The erratic emotion driven behavior of the teen years is reflected in the teen nervous system.
Mindfulness has been shown to be associated with emotion regulation. The higher the level of mindfulness the better able the individual is in experiencing emotions at a manageable level and responding to them adaptively and appropriately (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/09/10/take-command-and-control-of-your-emotions/). Hence, it makes sense to study the development of the brain, mindfulness, and emotion regulation during adolescence. Perhaps mindfulness can compensate for some of the emotional dominance of behavior in the teen.
In today’s Research News article “Dispositional mindfulness is predicted by structural development of the insula during late adolescence”
Friedel and colleagues use MRI neuroimaging to measure brain structure of males and females at age 16 and again at age 19 to view the changes occurring during late adolescence. They also measured mindfulness, emotional self-regulation, attention, inhibitory control, frustration, as well as behavioral aggression and depressive mood. High levels of mindfulness were found to be associated with higher levels of cognitive reappraisal, attention and inhibitory control, and lower levels of self-reported frustration, aggression and depressive mood. In other words, the adolescents who were very mindful were in better control of their emotions.
Friedel and colleagues then compared the brains at 16 years to those at 19 years and observed the expected thinning of cortical regions over this period. They found that mindfulness was associated with less thinning of an area called the Insula and that this was also associated with intelligence. They also found that the higher the level of mindfulness the less thinning of the Insula occurred and the higher the IQ test score.
These are intriguing findings. The Insula is an area of the cortex that has been found to be associated with interoceptive awareness, that is with the individual’s sensitivity to and awareness of their internal state. This is important for regulating emotions as the first step in regulating is actually becoming aware that they are occurring. Hence, the results suggest that the improved emotion regulation that is associated with mindfulness during late adolescence may be due to improved awareness of the emotional state and that this is due to less thinning of the Insula region of the cortex.
So, develop the brain mindfully and develop a more in-control teen.
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies