Neuroscience and the Teenage Brain: Implications for Sex Ed
One of my favorite aspects of the summer internship with Healthy Futures has been having the freedom to organize research on neuroscience and sex education. The research consisted of finding connections between the development of neural structures and their relationship to sex education. It is important to understand the way learning occurs before trying to make links. A simple way to look at the process is to study the two pathways in which people process information, through the thinking brain and the reactive brain. The thinking brain is the small frontal cortex region of the brain that focuses on conscious processing. The reactive brain, on the other hand, considers instinctual reactions that are not typically considered in learning. The idea is neural connections are strengthened and growth factors in the brain are increased when information enters the thinking brain, resulting in successful learning, whereas information in the reactive brain is usually ignored or avoided. This is relevant to sex ed because it provides an explanation as to why students commonly have trouble receiving and retaining information. Research like this is beneficial for facilitators and educators because it helps present new teaching techniques or reassures those that are commonly used, such as taking breaks, promoting engagement, and stimulating active recall of information.
The relatively new topic of cultural neuroscience, a branch of neuroscience that focuses on human interactions with their environment and how that affects the brain, also potentially has important implications for sex education. So many values are gained based on the people and situations around an individual, particularly during childhood. An adult that has strong beliefs towards a specific subject (like sex ed) often finds it extremely difficult to accept other opinions because their brain is working mold to their environment to fit their beliefs. This is because of their neural plasticity, or lack thereof. This the nervous system’s ability to undergo biological changes and reform synaptic connections, often in response to learning. The brain is much more plastic during childhood, where many foundational values are laid. Typically, mediating differences on emotional and value-based opinions will not come fast. It is important to allow individuals time to understand the information given and reflect on their own values. For these reasons, researcher Bruce Wexler has correctly labeled cultural neuroscience as, “a fascinating step forward in deconstructing the seemingly universal us/them mentality (Brain and Culture by Bruce Wexler).”
Another significant aspect of my research has been on the topic of adolescent emotions and decision making. Understanding emotions is proven to be key in the education of adolescents. Positive feelings and emotions like happiness, motivation, and low stress were associated with a greater ability to retain information and a greater likelihood of sending information through the thinking brain pathway. On the other hand, feelings of stress and frustration promote the reactive brain pathway. Some of the most meaningful research was compiled under the guidance of Dr. Realini, the founder of Healthy Futures of Texas, who asked me to focus on the way emotions make teens more likely to make impulsive “heat of the moment” decisions that commonly lead to negative consequences. I found research stating that teens have full development of the emotional part of their brain, the amygdala, but don’t yet have their frontal cortex fully developed, where the amygdala is regulated. Some personal testimonies from teachers and doctors have even mentioned that their students are more attentive and engaged when they are more aware of these neural structural differences. This information is key for parents and educators of all kinds to better understand the behavior of teenagers which is why much of it is included in Healthy Futures’s Big Decisions curriculum.
It has been inspiring to review this information and make a difference in the perspectives of my coworkers and I am grateful for the opportunity. If anyone is interested in learning more about the research I have compiled feel free to reach out to me so I can send some more information! I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.