Ep 217: Why Your Teen Thinks Differently

Chantel Prat, author of The Neuroscience of You, joins us to talk about how every brain is unique. We discuss the left and right brain, how to use psychology to motivate teenagers, and why every teen has a different way of thinking.

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Full show notes

We all think differently–it's what makes our world so wonderful to live in. We each have unique opinions, perspectives and ideas to bring to the table!

We often chalk up these differences to our individual upbringings or life experiences–but what if there are fundamental structural differences within each of our brains that change the way we think? What if our brains aren’t one size fits all?

These are the questions we’re attempting to answer this week in our interview with Chantel Prat. Chantel is a cognitive neuroscientist, internationally renowned speaker and professor at the University of Washington! She’s joining us today to discuss some powerful ideas from her new book, The Neuroscience of You: How Every Brain is Different and How to Understand Yours.

In our interview, Chantel and I are breaking down how the left and right hemispheres of our brains affect our behavior differently. We’re also discussing why some teens are motivated by reward, and others by punishment. Plus, how each person’s brain operates in a unique way and why it matters.

Left Brain vs. Right Brain

You may have heard that the left brain is more analytical, while the right brain is more creative. While this is an interesting idea, it’s not totally backed by science, Chantel explains. There are differences between the function of the two hemispheres, but they aren’t as simple as one might think. In the episode, Chantel and I are discussing the existing research about the differences between the left and right sides of the brain.

One study examined people who lost the tie between the two hemispheres, meaning that each could be studied individually, says Chantel. The researchers asked the participants of the study to draw a picture based on a prompt, and found out that the right brain is engaged when creating visual interpretations.

However, when people were asked to use their own language to describe what they’d drawn, they suddenly started to make up totally new explanations for their images that had nothing to do with the prompt!

Chantel explains that this phenomenon occurred because the left brain is responsible not just for generating language but also for making inferences about causality and justifying our own behavior. This means there’s often a disconnect between the true reason for our actions and our conscious justifications for them, says Chantel.

 In fact, much of our decision making is done within our subconscious, Chantel explains. This is especially true for teenagers, whose brains are still developing. When they seem unable to justify their behavior, it’s likely because they don’t have the brain mechanisms to do so yet, says Chantel.

While kids can’t always explain their behavior, it’s clear that they have certain motivations for their actions. Whether it’s the thrill of winning a homecoming game, the fear of failing a test or the satisfaction of saving for their first car, each teen has their own motivating forces. Chantel and I are talking about what motivates teens and how parents can understand their teens’ own method of motivation.

What Motivates Teens?

Although motivation is complicated, Chantel explains a basic spectrum we can use to understand what motivates our kids (and ourselves). Chantel explains that at one end of the spectrum, there are “carrot”  learners, who are spurned forward by rewards. On the other end are “stick” learners, or those who make decisions based on their desire to avoid negative outcomes. 

You may have heard of the chemical dopamine, and that it plays a role in happiness. As Chantel explains in the episode, dopamine is a reward chemical that makes us feel satisfied when we achieve or obtain something. On the other hand, when we find ourselves disappointed, we experience what Chantel calls a “dopamine dip” and receive less dopamine than we expected.

Carrot learners are motivated to seek out dopamine, and learn to repeat the behaviors that bring it–like eating food, buying something they’ve had their eye on, or even reaching a lofty goal. Stick learners, on the other hand, are motivated by the memories of those dopamine dips, and want to avoid the same unpleasant feeling they associate with disappointment. Chantel and I talk about how you can figure out if your teen is a stick or a carrot learner and what that means for your relationship with them.

Although we can look at the science of different hemispheres and motivation styles, each individual’s brain is truly unique, Chantel explains. In the episode, we’re breaking down why everyone’s brain operates differently, and how we can help our kids embrace their own way of thinking.

Why Your Teen’s Brain Is Unique

Chantel finds it frustrating that we often approach neuroscience with the belief that brains are one-size-fits-all. The truth is that our brains each have unique ways of interacting with the world and processing information.

To demonstrate her point, Chantel tells me about some of her research, in which she monitors participants’ brain activity while they’re doing nothing. When a brain isn’t given a task, researchers can measure the frequencies emitted by their brain in different areas. By measuring these frequencies, Chantel is able to make interpretations about how each person’s brain works uniquely.

Particularly, she measures these frequencies as they relate to long term planning vs. sensitivity to the current environment. Essentially, Chantel can read how much energy people spend working towards long term goals, and how much energy is spent navigating the present. 

Each person’s brain does this differently, she explains, including teenagers. In the episode, we’re talking about how we can understand this concept as it applies to our kids, in educational, social and personal contexts.

In the Episode…

Chantel’s extensive knowledge of the brain is remarkable! On top of the topics discussed above, we also talk about:
  • Why we should rethink standardized testing
  • How parts of our brains become specialized
  • Why left-handed people think differently
  • How extroverted people receive stronger dopamine responses
If you enjoyed this week’s episode, you can find more from Chantel at chantelprat.com. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next week!

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Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Chantel Prat (she/her)
Chantel Prat (she/her)
psychologist, neuroscientist, studying individual differences, author of The Neuroscience of You, https://t.co/ivjEGYnUl4 all opinions are my brain's
Ep 217: Why Your Teen Thinks Differently
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