Mystery of the teenage brain

In the first of what will inevitably be one of Perception Society’s finest lecture series in recent years, Prof. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore delivered a fascinating and engaging talk on Monday night to an audience of keen Specialist Carthusians, Beaks and Parents about the changes and struggles faced by the teenage brain. She is Director of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL and also a global TED speaker. In March 2015, she was interviewed by Jim Al-Khalili on BBC Radio 4’s ‘The Life Scientific’ programme and in July 2018, Prof. Blakemore was elected Fellow of the British Academy.

Superbly organised and put together by the Chairman of the Society, Dr Balasubramanian, the lecture was three years in the making, having first contacted Sarah-Jayne while they both were in New Delhi some years ago. Since then she has also written a book: ‘Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain’, which was published in March earlier this year and has been shortlisted for the Royal Society Science Book Prize 2018; those attending the lecture were able to pick up a signed copy of this for future reading.

In front of a packed audience, Prof. Blakemore used anecdotes of her own adolescent years to illustrate the biochemical, as well as the physical shifts that occur in the human brain, explaining that these were the likely cause of some of the less favourable stereotypes associated with this time in our lives.

For example, she and her team from the Cognitive Neuroscience and Development group at UCL conducted ground-breaking research, correlating increased risk taking, peer recognition, and self-awareness in the teenage years. They predicted this was due to the changes that occur in the ‘social’ areas of the brain, including the pre-frontal cortex. Perhaps unexpectedly, this did not include an increase in size of these areas – actually quite the opposite – but the brain becomes much more efficient and faster at processing information.

Following the lecture, Prof. Blakemore answered questions from the audience with smoothness and humour, particularly with regard to some of the more amusing questions – ‘Why do adults find it difficult to empathise with teenagers, when they themselves went through the same period themselves?’ Interesting points about the cognitive gender differences were also raised, which links closely to the School’s transition to coeducation by 2021.

In yet another Perception first, Dr. Balasubramanian has set up a collaborative research project with UCL, where Carthusians will have a unique and fantastic opportunity to be involved in ground breaking research on social decision-making amongst teenagers. Our Carthusians will be working under the guidance of postdoctoral scientist, Dr. Chierchia and gain insights into social psychology and cognitive neuroscience.

The new Perception format of having supper after the lecture allowed all attendees to have insightful and engaging discussions with each other. The event was hugely anticipated since the teenage brain is a topic that everyone can easily relate to and it was a real privilege to hear about Prof. Blakemore’s research in a beautiful and historic setting of the Saunders Room at Charterhouse.

Iona Harrison (G)