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What’s the role of conscience in teenage impulsivity?

ventromedial prefrontal cortex

ventromedial prefrontal cortex

I’ve been intrigued by both the volume of studies about neuroscience and the quick acceptance of early findings. Perhaps that’s why I found it so refreshing to see this article entitled Why Teenagers are So Impulsive.

At first, I thought this would be just another example of scientists arguing that humans, especially teenagers, don’t have a mind of their own but are essentially just responding to neurotransmitters… reacting their way through life from one experience to another. (A rather shallow and dangerous way to look at humanity)


It’s hard to generalize about teenage impulsivity, because some adolescents clearly have more self-control than many adults, says principal investigator B. J. Casey, a neuroscientist. Still, a growing body of evidence suggests that, in general, teens specifically struggle to keep their cool in social situations, she says.


Those adolescents who did manage to restrain themselves showed significantly higher activity in a brain region called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), which is involved in top-down control of behavior. “You could think of it as the brake,” Caudle says. “It’s as if the teenage brain might need to work a little harder to hold that response back.” This could help explain why teenage criminals are less likely to be repeat offenders, the researchers say—as their brains develop into adulthood, it gets easier for them to rein in their behavior.


“This work strongly suggests that the teenage brain is highly impulsive in the face of threat and points to unusual vmPFC activity as a possible biological underpinning,” says Jon Horvitz, a neurobiologist at the City College of New York. “It is an exciting finding.”

Read the full article

As someone who has spent tons of time with teenagers I read these studies and wonder: Does anyone really think people are so simple? For example, the reason a person reacts is far beyond simple neurology– people make decisions, even impulse decision, for a wide variety of reasons. And even in an instant, part of what makes us human, is our ability to make a reasoned decision in instant.

If you walk up to someone and punch them in the face, the same person is going to respond a bunch of different ways depending on a million variables. So to say that a teenager is more impulsive than an adult is, in itself, a question a scientist would ask because it’s an interesting question but anyone who has ever been a human will know is an impossible question to definitively answer.

To study that with the expectation that you’d come to a definitive answer would be as arrogant as studying the physics of dropping pixie sticks. Sure, you could figure out a single instance within a certain degree of variation, but you’d never be able to say exactly how the pixie sticks would land as there are infinite variables.

What about the conscience?

To see humans as conscienceless arrays of brain matter and neurotransmitters is not helpful or even interesting. While the study of impulse is intriguing and, no doubt, a well-funded question academically, we simply cannot separate teenage impulse from teenage conscience any more than you can separate personal history from impulse. Yes, some teenagers are predisposed to have negative impulses. But all teenagers are innately made in God’s image, complete with conscience.

What say you fellow youth worker?

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1 thought on “What’s the role of conscience in teenage impulsivity?

  1. Adam,

    Great post and love that you actually mention conscience! I always feel like it is somewhat nonexistent in these types of conversations. While I think the scientific viewpoint helpful in understanding why our teens and middle schoolers act the way they do sometimes (i.e. you had a DOG POOP fight?!?! What were you thinking?!?!), it is also important to not chalk up that type of behavior entirely to a lack of development in the frontal cortex because of the conscience God has given us. It changes the conversation. Great stuff and I’m looking forward to more conversation about this!

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