Why teenagers are supposed to drive you crazy

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First aired on The Nature of Things (09/08/12)

Words such as selfish, reckless, irrational, irritable and impossible are often used to describe teenagers. But what if teenagers are doing exactly as nature intended? That's what CBC-TV's The Nature of Things decided to find out. Their documentary, Surviving :) The Teenage Brain (which you can watch in its entirety above) looks at this critical developmental stage from a scientific and evolutionary point of view. One of the experts they spoke to was Dr. David Bainbridge, Cambridge evolutionary biologist and author of Teenagers: A Natural History. Bainbridge argues that teenagers represent an important evolutionary stage, both biologically and culturally. Sure, they may drive us crazy, but that's what they are supposed to do.


Biologically, the teenage phase was developed so that the human brain could become as large and advanced as it is today. During the evolution of Homo sapiens, our brains made two large jumps in size and cognitive skill, 300 million years ago and about 300,000 years ago. Right around that second jump, the teenage phase of human development emerged, and it took humans approximately 20 years to develop into full-fledged adults. Bainbridge is confident that this is not a coincidence. "Size does matter," he said. "I think we needed teenagers to make the big brain work." Because our growth slowed down, humans now had the time and capacity to take on more complex thought, skills and communication.

Culturally, the teenage phase does two things. It's a time of personal development, but it's also a time for cultural and social advancement. Teenagers are hard-wired to take risks and try new things. It's how they acquire the cognitive abilities our fancy, larger brain can handle. "So many of the good things that come in life are because we took risks, and being a teenager is a good time in life to practice this," Bainbridge said. "We can see what taking risks feels like, we can see what can go wrong when taking a risk, we can find out all the wonderful things that could happen because you took a risk and it paid off."

Yes, some of these risks are stupid. You only have to head to YouTube to see teens jumping off buildings and blowing things up. But some of these risks are positive and have the potential to not only make an individual life better, but society as well. Bainbridge cites Albert Einstein, the Beatles, and Mark Zuckerberg as proof. "If you actually look back in history at many of the people we consider geniuses, many of the great successes they had in their 20s or 30s or 40s actually stemmed from inspiration they had when they were a teenager."

Teenagers have adaptive minds. They are trying to assess and understand the world around them. And taking risks, breaking the mould, questioning authority are all characteristics of the adaptive mind. When teeangers challenge the statuq quo, they have the opportunity to create great social change -- the hippie movement in the 1960s, the Occupy movement in 2010 and more recently the student movement in Quebec -- and make the world a better place.

"Teenage creativity and the teenage urge for change is very important for the development of human culture," Bainbridge said. "Without teenagers, we'd be short-lived and stupid."

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