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Archive for Thursday, February 11, 1999

TEEN ANGST IS JUST NORMAL NEW RESEARCH SHOWS

February 11, 1999

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Teens do experience emotions more than adults, a KU researcher says.

Sharon finally got the courage to ask her crush for a date.

The agony of pushing those few words -- "Will you ...?" -- from the lips nearly made her hyperventilate.

Mike, a physical attraction to most women in the high school, agreed. He was free because he had dumped Beth like a pro. No good reason, just felt like it.

On Friday, Mike and Sharon went out to dinner. While ordering, Mike called Sharon a "chick." He repeatedly mentioned an ex-girlfriend in conversation and Sharon caught him eyeing other women in the restaurant.

Sharon insisted on being taken home and vowed never to date again.

Mike's confidence was shaken so badly he called Beth to beg forgiveness. She refused, of course, and reduced Mike to sobbing wreck.

In the end, Mike and Sharon were left to battle teen angst in solitude.

Ruth Ann Atchley, assistant professor of psychology at Kansas University, said emotionally charged decisions of Mike and Sharon might be explained by science. Specifically, she said, differences in the way adolescents and adults process information in the brain can shed light on their behavior.

"Teens experience emotions more than adults," Atchley said. "Their emotions bounce up and down. In teens, angst is a very real problem that cognitive neuroscience may be able to help us understand."

Atchley said a new study of males by McLean Hospital near Boston relied on functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, one of the most advanced technologies for medical diagnostic scanning, to produce detailed images of brain activity when subjects were asked to interpret a series of pictures.

"Your normal brain will give us a nifty signal and show us which areas are more active," she said.

The research indicated the 10- and 18-year-old males relied heavily on the amygdala, a part of the brain that provides quick, emotional responses. For example, the amygdala might tell a person to run when confronted by a lion or when stepping on something that resembles a coiled snake.

Adults in the study made more extensive use the cerebral cortex, which helps people make reasoned responses to stimuli. This area of the brain offers feedback to the amygdala to keep it from overreacting. For example, if the lion is chained to a tree or the coiled object is actually a garden hose, the cerebral cortex can convince the amygdala not to push a teen-ager into panic mode.

"Adolescents were less accurate than adults in judging the emotion that was being shown," Atchley said. "These male adolescents seem to process information differently."

In the same vein, adults likely experience less angst than adolescents because younger people rely on gut reactions of the amygdala, and adults respond in a more reasoned way by combining activity of the amygdala and cerebral cortex.

"This work indicates adolescents are likely to experience emotions more keenly, because of the response of the amygdala," she said. "Also, this teen-age angst phase is completely normal and just a state in development."

-- Tim Carpenter's phone message number is 832-7155. His e-mail address is tcarpenter@ljworld.com.

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