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Brain Structure and the Developing Mind: Part II

Last time I talked about how emotion and reasoning skills differ on a developmental level between adolescents and adults. I’d like to revisit that because something recently changed in the legal landscape that takes those concepts into account. I’m talking about this Supreme Court decision:

If you don’t want to read it in its entirety, here’s the quick version: Those who were convicted of murder when they were juveniles and have life sentences without parole may be reconsidered for parole or re-sentenced. Teenagers/juveniles are more prone to impulsive decision making, and a life sentence as a form of societal protection is unjust. Simply put: people grow up and change. While some might balk at the idea of reconsidering prison sentences in general, especially for murders, based on the concepts we talked about in my last blog I agree with the court’s decision here.


The court decision emphasizes that by applying a life sentence without parole to a teenager, we would be denying them the opportunity to show some kind of redemption. If we’re going to argue that the prison system is intended for rehabilitation, then what our prison sentence was saying to a prisoner is, “Sit there and think about what you did, for life, and while you do that as an adult, try to remember how you thought as a teen, and then don’t think like a teen anymore.” THAT simply doesn’t make sense and is unjust, so it’s changing.

The plaintiff of the case, Henry Montgomery, committed a murder when he was 17 years old and as of this writing is 69. During his time in the prison system he experienced an “evolution from a troubled, misguided youth to a model member of the prison community” and “[notably] that he was a coach on the prison boxing team, had worked in the prison’s silk-screen program, and had offered advice to younger inmates.”

imgres3I would be curious to hear Henry’s story of how he experienced himself in prison. Part of the rulings in 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama that preceded this current case included language on deciding whether juveniles reflected “transient immaturity” and were able to mature. I’m also curious how we could create an operational definition to decide when juveniles have moved past “transient immaturity”. And I’m curious how we can decide that sooner than a 52-year prison sentence.

If we are going to argue that myelination is the last step from an “adolescent” brain into an “adult” brain, one possible method is to just check people’s prefrontal cortexes with an MRI. Or just interview these inmates and get to know what it was like for them. Either one of these are cheaper than incarcerating people for decades.


Brain Structure and the Developing Mind: Part I

I like brains. Not on a zombie level but on a spiritual level. The brain is an organ that essentially supports a person, and those supports take time to develop and become secure. I’d like to talk about what that process means for people, because our culture has a tendency to want to skip the teenage years and step directly into adulthood. Oddly enough our culture really does have an immature expectation, the desire to see a stable secure foundation constructed instantly without any sort of cost or collateral damage. I think that if we examine what is going on under the hood we might be able to accept the teenage experience without shame.

Let’s talk about brain structure a second. The amygdala is a portion of the brain responsible for a great part of emotional experiences. Simplified it controls what’s called a “fight or flight” response. Basically, if we are directly startled or surprised and we have to make a quick decision to attack a threat or protect ourselves, this system will kick in to allow us to decide. The amygdala is able to do this at a very early age in our lives. Fundamentally, it is a system based on impulse without complex decision making.

The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain that allows for formal reasoning. It’s the part of your brain responsible for logical decision making and important for most forms of conventional learning. It’s not that great at quick decision making; it’s better at planning and informing. It has to work slow at first. Your brain doesn’t know what kind of rules you are going to be born into and whether those rules could change. It needs to gather information to allow you to make conclusions about the world. As you encounter more common experiences across settings, it becomes more reliable in calling up logical conclusions.


Both of these structures are important to be a functional person. You might notice that they seem to operate at different speeds.

The metaphorical way of explaining how this happens is: Imagine each of these structures like cars in a race. The first car to cross the finish line will decide on what level you respond in a situation. On the average in childhood and adolescence, the amygdala will outpace the prefrontal cortex. This results in a lot of emotional and impulsive decision making, which is NORMAL (Yes, parents and teachers, I know it’s frustrating, but you too behaved this way).


The more in-depth way of explaining this involves explaining myelin. Myelin is a coating around brain cells that speeds up impulses between cells. As nerve cells become more myelinated, the more efficient and faster they can communicate. It’s one factor that plays a role in processing speed from a developmental standpoint. In children and young adults, the prefrontal cortex is less myelinated than a grown adult.

Assuming everything is going well developmentally, the prefrontal cortex will become myelinated and eventually be able to keep pace with the amygdala. In cases that aren’t split-second decision making, or in cases where you are allowed to ask for time to think, the prefrontal cortex can offer logical decision making in concert with your emotional state.

This is how we can communicate something complex that addresses both sides like:

“Wow, I really feel frustrated when my teacher tells me to put away my phone, but I know that getting into an argument with them about it might not be worth it.”

Or the less formal “I really really want to go out with Alex (they’re soooo hot) but I think Alex might have a problem with alcohol (daaang Alex u fine) and I’m feeling really conflicted about it (but you could totally just go w/ them bb) and maybe I should ask for a second opinion on this”.

This isn’t an argument that “teens will be teens” but that there is something more important happening on a developmental physiological level worth understanding and accepting.




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