It may come as a shock to disillusioned middle school teachers, but the brains of adolescents are better suited to learning than those of adults. Areas of our brain that assist with some types of learning at least to the age of 17 subsequently lose this capacity.
Teenage brains are more sensitive to rewards than those of their elders, something that leads to a lot of hand-wringing about susceptibility to short-term thinking and the allure of drugs. Harvard University’s Dr Juliet Davidow sees things differently. “The adolescent brain is adapted, not broken,” she said in a statement. “The imbalances in the maturing teenage brain that make it more sensitive to reward have a purpose  “they enable adolescents to be better at learning from their experiences.”

Davidow had 41 teens aged 13 to 17 and 31 adults in their 20s play a learning game. The majority were scanned using a functional MRI (fMRI) machine while playing.

The game required players to guess which flower image the butterflies would land on. The first guesses were pure chance, but over time players saw patterns emerge. Unrelated images accompanied the words telling players if a particular prediction was correct. Subsequently, the players were tested on their memories of these images. Satisfaction aside, there were no prizes for right answers.

Teens outperformed adults on both aspects of the test, Davidow reported in Neuron. They picked up patterns of which butterflies preferred particular flowers more quickly and also had a better memory for the unexpected objects that appeared with the assessments to their answers.

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