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Why Your Angsty Teen Phase Was Actually Good For You

Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
Ah, your teenage years — full of big feelings, fast cars, and angry music. Maybe we weren't exactly our best selves back then, but new research suggests the same memory processes that make us impulsive, angsty nightmares as teens may serve a more noble (and necessary) cognitive purpose.

For the study, published in Neuron, researchers gave 31 adults and 41 teens a memory task while scanning their brain activity. The task specifically tested participants' capacity for "reinforcement learning," which refers to the ability to make a guess and use the outcome to make better guesses in the future. Specifically, researchers tested this by showing participants series of objects paired with each other and asking them to remember which images had been shown together.

Their results showed that teens actually did better on these tasks than adults did. And the brain scans showed that the teens' brains were more active than adults' in the hippocampus (an area heavily involved in other types of memory) rather than just in the striatum (an area associated with decision-making), as they had predicted. The teens' brains also showed an increased level of connectivity between those two areas compared to the adult participants.

So, the study authors conclude that this adolescent period of impulsive decision-making may be especially beneficial partly because it improves our reinforcement learning.

"The major takeaway is that teens are better at learning from feedback than adults [are], and that they engage different parts of the brain when they learn," Daphna Shohamy, PhD, a cognitive neuroscientist at Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute and one of the study's authors, tells R29 in an email. "The adults have two different learning systems that work more or less separately (the striatum and the hippocampus); when the teens are learning, these two brain regions work together, in concert."

But that doesn't necessarily mean teens have a better memory overall. Instead, they just have a different way of remembering — one that might signal necessary development during an important life stage. Dr. Shohamy suggests this may be because adolescents are particularly sensitive to rewards, such as the feedback they got during the memory task.

In real-world terms, this is why teens might seem interested in seeking out drugs, for example, but also why a good grade on a test — or what peers think — can be so motivating. When you're a teen, every single thing can seem like the most important thing in the world.

And this hypersensitivity, as you might call it, is important: "Our findings suggest that teens are better at learning from experience," explains Dr. Shohamy. "It is possible that they are impulsive because that propels them to seek out learning opportunities that will help shape their understanding of the world, as they transition to independence."

So there you go. Not only did you discover your favourite band (and maybe make a few less-than-great life decisions) as an impulsive teen, but you probably also developed some necessary memory and learning skills while you were at it. Next time your mom brings up how intense you were, you can tell her that.