The teenage years are a notoriously awkward period in a person's life. As we transition from childhood to adolescence, it feels like everything is happening all at once: from body changes, to new interests.
Sometimes, we feel like we're too old for things we still enjoy, or too young for things we'd like to try. All this confusion compounds to frustration, and sometimes, angst. Teenagers often feel misunderstood, since they can sometimes find adolescence itself difficult to understand.
The Mind Museum's newest exhibition on the teenage brain tries to untangle the mess that is the popular understanding of teenagers. Generally regarded as moody because of their hormones, teenagers should instead be understood as people whose brains are undergoing massive rewiring for an adult life.
The Teenage Brain: Wiring In Progress depicts its namesake through the metaphor of different rooms in a house. These rooms roughly map parts of the brain based on what they do, where they are, and how much they are in charge of.
Welcoming guests to the exhibition is the freedom car, housed inside the garage. The garage represents the teenager trying to build their own identity apart from their parents and the expectations of how they should present themselves to the world.
Teens constantly tinker with their identities, which people often see as flightiness. This can make it seem that non-conformist behaviors are just phases, which be a very patronizing view of teenage identity.
The car embodies this freedom to explore new ways of expression, which, though possibly perilous, also present vast new opportunities for the growing teenager.
To the side of the garage is the yard, which depicts the social life of the teenager. Once the teen has largely abandoned the protective bubble of their parents, they go on to navigate the often scary outside social world. Peer groups can help a teen in building their identity. However, this can also lead to cliquish behavior and hive mentality. Instead of finding themselves, they instead trade imposed expectations by their parents for imposed expectations by their peers.
Conforming to peer expectations can include high risk behavior, such as indulging in alcohol, drugs, and sex. This is where the dizzying freedoms of the teenage years can become overwhelming. For, while a teen tries to fit in, they are not quite adept yet at knowing how to weigh the possible future costs of high risk behavior.
Inside the house itself, the first stop is the living room where guests are briefed by a short video on what to expect in the exhibition. The teens in this video were once Junior Mind Movers, and now adolescents in their own right. The living room introduces guests to the origins of the word "teenager", and how we came to begin studying this particular phase in life.
At the heart of the exhibition is the bedroom. This represents the active limbic system (represented by a dense branching of wires and lights as neurons) as well as the private life of the teen, which parents are infinitely curious about.
This room shows how cruder instincts and drives might motivate a teenager's behavior over a more calculated and cerebral view. Here, you can learn about the eating habits of the teenager and why teens have such strange sleeping hours.
The bathroom shows one of the central elements of adolescence: puberty, and how the changes it brings about can be very confusing, given societal expectations about gender identity and expression.
You might find it confusing to find the kitchen blocked off by bars and tape. This shows how the executive part of the teenage brain, the prefrontal cortex, is still largely under construction. In adults, this part has largely developed to process risk-taking behavior and allow a person to be more circumspect in their actions. This is why it may seem that teens are brash or careless.
Many people blame this behavior on "hormones". True enough, adolescence coincides with the increased production of several sex-related and emotion-related hormones. However, we must also understand that a teenager is truly under construction. They do not yet possess all the mental faculties of an adult, and yet we impose adult expectations on them: from choosing their future careers, to having an adult's capacity to judge risks.
We hope that going through this exhibition will give you greater appreciation of what a teenager goes through, whether you have already gone through your awkward teens or just about to. Perhaps with a little understanding, we can help teens around us make the best of their formative years.
To learn more about The Mind Museum's other traveling exhibitions as well as upcoming and regular activities, visit the museum's website, and follow the museum on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.