The Teenaged Brain
in Today's World

by Dr. W. Dean Belnap
condensed from six parts
of a ten-part series of articles
called "A Brain Gone Wrong"
Meridian Magazine

Why Today's Teen Is in Trouble

Today's youth face a society where the lines of right and wrong are blurred, and in many cases completely erased.

Our youth reflect our culture of self-indulgece. The radical shifts of the last century have shaped a society that cares less, craves more and seeks pleasure over peace.

Parents who are solid, God-fearing, citizens are watching their precious youth slide into the dark abyss that was once considered the under-belly of society.

Teens are still a work in progress; both the body and the mind are still maturing. Raging hormones are blamed for volatile and surly responses, for existential angst and resentment of authority. But the brain a teen begins with is not the one he leaves with at the closing of those tumultuous years.

The brain continues to develop during teen years; brain cells and new neural connections take on new life. Between puberty and young adulthood, the prefrontal lobe - the executive portion of the brain responsible for self-control, judgment, emotional regulation, organization and planning - warps into renewed articulation. Teenage years are when the circuits reconsolidate for mature adult response. Extraneous neural branches get pruned back as a newer and more efficient circuitry takes over.

Teens have power over the pruning process by what they see, what they take in, what they do. It can be positive. Or negative. Their choices project direction and give emphasis to budding interests and hence wire their brains for further use.

Teens process information differently from adults. While teen years are a time for testing to establish personal space, that experimenting need not compromise the soul and its divine possibilities.

And that's the key.

Youth hunger for things spiritual; they substitute what they cannot find with those destructive influences and substances that help them feel anything in a darkening, lonely and disturbing world. They turn to the tools that the world has crafted to fill time and space but those means and measures can never fill the soul.

Can Negative Imprinting be Reversed?

Society begs for answers, somewhere to point, someone to blame, and then demands a quick fix for the once ebullient child whose stare is now vacant. Fix. The word is gripping. Fix, a common term for addictive behavior, is in reality, no fix at all. Can you fix a youth whose teenage years have been wasted? Can you reattach that which abuse in its many forms has disconnected in their highly sensitive brains? Can "imprinting" be reversed?


Here's what happens in a brain. The neurotransmitter dopamine springs from neuron to neuron in the brain circuitry, beaming a molecular "grin" for a feel-good sensation. Its activity affects the firing of other neurons and stimulates feeling from mild pleasure to a surge of energy and euphoria.

Positive imprinting changes the brain toward ever-developing heights of fulfillment, direction, and goal formation for a continually better future.

Positive imprinting - of the prefrontal cortex - correlates with the most advanced aspects of human intelligence. For example, charity is a measure of the strength of the prefrontal cortex. Uncharitable acts reflect negative imprinting, a diminished prefrontal lobe.

Negative imprinting takes another course. Drugs drive themselves straight to the basal ganglia where feeling is stored. Euphoria! For a moment. The process is the same for sexual addictions, alcohol, and violence. The initial experience produces feel-good sensations. But what follows are irritability, anxiety, distress, even despair until the next experience. And the next. It is compelling to know that each drug use produces a high, but never one equal to the first. Hence, more drugs, stronger drugs, more frequent ingestion become the pattern but never the panacea.

Brain imaging techniques can illustrate, in real-time pictures, the very activation of negative imprinting from one cold beer to a joint, a violent scene played out on the big screen, or a pornographic image on the family computer.

Initially, the stimulation tickles the brain. But for some, just that one adventure is enough to lock in an imprint that begins the downward spiral. For others, long term use cuts new pathways to the areas of the brain that control pleasure and judgment. The new routes circumvent the prefrontal lobe and go straight to the pleasure center. An addicted brain is both physically and chemically different from a normal brain not subjected to negative imprints. The addicted brain has been reprogrammed to compulsively want more rather than to weigh the options. Genes reverse themselves when imprinted with negative experiences or behaviors.

Youth who lose the prefrontal cortex control in their brains become addicted to their limbic system, sometimes referred to as the Lizard Brain. The change is manifest in every aspect of their lives: relationships, values and purpose are up for grabs as the brain downshifts to dependency and need.

Gene combinations make us distinct and unique. But changes can take place in the gene makeup of the brain to create temporary or permanent loss of the use of the prefrontal lobe of the brain. In other words, abnormal behaviors due to loss of inhibitions, or urges to satisfy need, or to feed a habit, or to engage in violent behavior - become normalized. Imprinting switches DNA, turning on and off the very essence of the singular human identity.

Lost are the nerve transmissions that access the unique higher centers where freedom of choice and feelings of joy are centered. Instead, once prosperous brain functions are overridden by primitive, animal-like behaviors. The result is a teen who drinks excessively, takes drugs, finds excitement in violence, seeks company with gangs, uses sex, abuses family and friends, and ultimately loses the potential to rise above self gratification.

Negative imprints erode the ability to feel pleasure in those things that once produced genuine pleasure. Adolescents whose choices are producing negative imprints hang with others who are in similar frame of mind, and they share a code of secrecy. Other signals include being boldly argumentative or sullen, testy or sad, being depression, showing less and less interest and motivation in school even if grades are high, and changing eating habits or not eating at all.

Such stimulation is the fork in the road. The model is the same for alcohol and other stimulants that open the floodgates for feel-good brain chemicals like serotonin. The result is a re-sculpting of the brain. Want becomes need. There can never be enough to feed the growing appetite as the pleasure center of the brain pushes the executive center aside. From the prefrontal cortex, the executive decision center, to the basal ganglia, the pleasure center, is a short skip. The brain becomes accustomed to an artificial balance between the two and this programming causes cravings as the pleasure center takes over. And it never rests.

Who is This Child?

Today's accelerated, free and open lifestyle is causing children to grow up before their time. The result is negative imprinting, a brain gone wrong.

God has endowed the human brain with the ability to perceive the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, positive and negative value systems. These positives and negatives are called imprints. They are a function of agency.

The defining characteristic of the brain is the remarkable endowment of free agency and free will. This feature distinguishes man among all creations of God. The distinct plasticity of the brain endows man with the ability to grow, develop and evolve to a higher level or regress to a lower, compulsive, animal-like level defined by the loss of agency and will. That's what happens when imprinting impairs pure functions of the prefrontal cortex of the brain: judgment, analysis, agency, comprehension, relationships and even spirituality are diminished. The baser needs of aggressions take over.

Positive imprinting is grounded in firm, basic moral values that are learned at homes where parents reflect such thinking. More important than math skills or ACT achievement is the ability to understand the values that act as hinges for the world in which we live. Love of God. Honesty. Respect. Honor. Love. Kindness. Fair play and the time-honored Golden Rule. When amplified in daily life, these qualities create positive imprints that tie youth to more than passing events or popularity. Such imprinting shores up the core spiritual framework of the mind and soul. Families provide much of the setting for many positive imprints.

The lack of strong family values, family talk, and family time is a clear invitation for negative imprinting.

The surge of addictions in its many forms - pornography, drugs, alcohol, sex cast as love, and violence - has much to do with rerouting the brain. Seeking relief, social acceptance, or a life of their own supposedly better than the one they find at home - a teenager takes one drink, turns to pornography, violence, sex, gang activity, food or no food and the brain is compromised, "imprinted." Youth begin to act without connecting to higher thinking skills. Sobering.

Love at home is the cradle of positive imprinting. Togetherness, support, and belonging blunt the desire to try something, just this once. For families to make a difference, they must meet certain structured needs:

  • Keep in contact. Know the comings and goings, the friends, the pressures.

  • Be together as often as possible. Dinner, family night, morning prayer, evening wrap-up.

  • Talk. And keep talking.

    A family whose structure is designed to move together day after day is a family that will spot - and recapture - one who drifts.

    The Brain Believes What You Tell It

    Joy is a "heart condition" that is manifested by the brain. It is the imprinting of vitality and fulfillment and mastery on the brain. Imagine a life filled with achievement, enrichment, self-fulfillment and satisfaction. One that can sustain light in a world that is "walking in darkness at noonday." Mastering the mind is the key to that light.

    What we imprint determines what we see, feel, do and like. If we treat the brain carefully, it will do the right thing and work for us in the right way. But if we give our highly sophisticated brain the wrong directions, those imprints will develop negative programs that "dumb-down" our potential. For example, those who are addicted feel and think of nothing but feeding their need; those who have lived with violence and abuse see no other way to survive.

    Negative imprints dominate our society. But, the brains of our youth are still works in progress. Not only are teens looking like all legs one day and arms and ears the next, but the regions of their brains are developing as well. Their brains are learning how to balance the emotional center of the brain with the judgment of the prefrontal cortex. A majority of youth are imprinting their brains with negative programs of worldliness and its evils that are not reality. Their brains, and ours, can be programmed with wrong thinking year after year, word by word, until our scripts are etched - imprinted - with society's ills. So many of our youth are living out the "wrong" picture of themselves that has been created in their minds. Unfortunately, so are many of their parents.

    But negative programming can be erased - just like a disk in a computer - and replaced with positive programming that will stay with us. The Proverb, "As a man thinketh, so is he," is absolutely true. Brain science reaffirms that truth.

    The brain through adolescence is maturing in fits and starts. Raw emotions surface only to be played back by judgment and empathy. This imbalance is the reflection of imprints not yet cohesive. Moodiness and incoherent behavior are almost standard. That's why a teen will pop into a car too crowded for seat belts or worse, being driven by someone who is high on drugs. The same teen will comfort a child and feel such emotion for a lost puppy.

    The brain is an incredibly complex physiological mechanism. The prefrontal cortex is the portion that differentiates us from the animal world. The limbic system and basal ganglia are centers that initiate emotions. The limbic system can either enhance the functions of the prefrontal cortex or act independently with the more primitive basal/ganglia that promote and sustain bad habits.

    Within the brain itself, a network of 200 billion neurons, each having a potential of 185,000 electrochemical switches called neuro- transmitters, turns part of us on and part of us off. The brain's infinitely small chemical receiving centers respond to almost imperceptible electrochemical signals which deliver nearly immeasurable but highly potent chemical substances to our brain and to other organs which in turn control or affect everything we do.

    Through the joint effort of body, brain and mind we become the living results of our own thoughts. Every action we take, of any kind, is affected by prior programming - imprinting. A positive set of attitudes, beliefs and behaviors prompts an abundance of self-belief and moral foundation for our life's direction. The same is true for established patterns that follow the darker side of society. Hence, the prefrontal cortex is what scientists call the "executive" part of the brain. This area dictates the positive development of the person. In contrast, the more primitive and self-indulgent parts of the brain can take-over and dictate negative addictive behaviors where no freedom of choice is available.

    Fortunately, there is always a programming vocabulary or "inner speech" that can be used to erase and replace the negative imprinting with positive, productive new directions. That inner speech is a singular human endowment that can be activated or reactivated at any time.

    Put simply, the brain believes what you tell it most. What you tell it about you - what you like, what you do, what you want, what you need - will create you as your brain sees it.

    The location and function of inner speech - what we say to ourselves - is found in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This exercise of free agency or choice, not found in animals, allows us to make moral and value judgments.

    The Essence of Agency

    The ingredients for a meaningful life are all around us: good music, the birth of a child, a walk on a spring day, prayer and quiet reflection, time with friends.

    Yet, we see discouragement, despair and destructive behaviors all around us. The battle is not here-and-now politics. It began with the preexistence and the war in heaven when we fought for the right to choose. It continues today, not in the streets, media and tabloids, but in our minds. Imprinted in the brains of so many is a confused compilation of wrongs that seem right, but which lead to destructive and abhorrent behavior.

    By an incredibly complex physiological mechanism, a joint effort of body, brain and "mind," we become the living results of our own thoughts. We become what we think about most. Such thinking will program what we say when we engage in inner speech - like talking to ourselves. The brain believes what we tell it most.

    Negative talk can plague inner speech. It can become a compulsion representing "instructions" from a primitively driven addiction to all types of agency-destroying behavior. There is no way to estimate the amount of havoc and misdirection that such inner speech wreaks in our lives. It cripples our best intentions and seduces us to become satisfied or compelled to indulge in debasing behaviors.

    The concept of positive thinking is a good start. Unfortunately, such help is temporary unless we have programmed our minds to go beyond just condemning the negative. If we tell ourselves that from today onward we will never again think negatively, without at the same time giving ourselves a specific, new word vocabulary of the positive things to say to ourselves, we will soon slip back to the old habit of thinking negatively.

    How the Brain/Body Reacts
    to Anxiety and Stress

    The Survival Mode of "Fight or Flight"

    Sometimes, temporary effects of anxiety and stress are a necessity for our protection and well being. But if prolonged into indefinite periods of time there can be deleterious and even permanent adverse effects on brain and body.

    A real or perceived threat can activate a rapid series of connections in the brain allowing the person to deal with protective emergencies which require "fight or flight." This physiological response is initiated by the portion of the brain called "basal ganglia." The functions of the basal ganglia are designed to protect the individual. When activated, the basal ganglia send a message to the limbic system in the central part of the brain - the part of the brain that initially processes emotions.

    The emotional "colored" message is then sent to the frontal-prefrontal area of the brain for value judgment and decision making. In a state of alarm the brain transmission is immediate, as the basal ganglia and limbic system have done their jobs putting into place a sophisticated and complex emergency response system. Until the emergency problem is resolved, the prefrontal cortex remains in an anxiety state to direct protective and safety processes.

    Stuck in a State of Alert

    If the stress factor is provoked too often or prolonged for long periods of time the brain becomes less adaptive. An individual under chronic stress, with no hope of relief, can be constantly on guard and never able to relax. This high state of alert is particularly egregious in children and young adults. The pre-frontal cortex cannot deal with the constant anxiety and begins to slow and shut down.

    Like a computer whose circuitry has been compromised in an endless loop, the chemical transmitter for the frontal brain area, serotonin, decreases to the point of poor action ability. The basal ganglia and limbic system persist in their activity and cannot shut off. The "computer" freezes and the response becomes a sensation of continual unpleasant anxiety.

    This anxiety increases the electrical activity of the brain. The normal brain has a cybernating rhythm that cycles the entire brain at the average rate of 9 to 10 cycles per second. Under stress, that rhythm often cycles to 20-25 per second. This is fatiguing to the brain, particularly to the frontal cortex. The brain compensates by shutting down its activity in the areas higher than the basal ganglia and limbic system. In other words, the "computer" crashes. The result: depression.

    The Fight for Agency

    The basal ganglia and limbic system then no longer serve the pre-frontal cortex, but take over control of the brain. Decision making and freedom of choice are impaired and are eventually lost. This process is particularly true with addictive disorders as the brain, in a state of chronic discomfort and apprehension, "demands" a repetition of the exciting experience.

    The brain/body relationship is kept in an ongoing state of alert. Long term effects on the brain demonstrated by neuro-imagery show significant slowing of the pre-frontal lobe function. Such changes are the basis of many forms of mental disturbance and mental illness, and help us to more clearly define abnormal ties of sexual behavior, drugs, violence and addictive disorders for all ages.

    (edited by David Van Alstyne)

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