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Drinking hand sanitizer: why the behavior of adolescents actually makes sense

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  May 2, 2012 11:25 AM

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Anyone who has parented teenagers would agree that there is something, well, different about their brains.

Just last week, there was a story about teens drinking hand sanitizer. Really? Hand sanitizer? Apparently you can get drunk off the stuff. And what about the cinnamon challenge, where kids (usually teens) eat a spoonful of cinnamon (which can be dangerous) for no other reason except to see if they can? Or the choking game--trying to get high by cheating death?

You really have to wonder about the brain of anybody who would try this stuff.

But all of us, if we think about our youth, can think of something colossally stupid we did. I have no idea why my friends and I stood up in the back of a speeding pickup truck. Or tried to hold our breath longer than anyone else underwater (in deep water at a beach without lifeguards). These things seemed, I don't know, exciting. That they could possibly kill us didn't seem to matter.

I remember a lecture in my freshman Shakespeare course in college. The professor was talking about Hamlet. Suddenly he stopped. He looked out at all of us silently for a few moments, and then he said, "You can't possibly understand this, because all of you think you are immortal. To understand this, you have to understand that you could die."

It turns out that there is actual physiology behind this: the brains of adolescents are indeed different. They have the capacity, like children, to learn a lot of information quickly. But their brains are maturing and creating the connections that allow for more reasoned decision-making. This maturation process happens from the back to the front of the brain, with the frontal lobe being the last part to mature. And the frontal lobe just happens to be the part of the brain that controls judgment and insight. This means that adolescents are wired to be quick learners with limitations on their, um, common sense. Their behavior is a matter, really, of biology.

Dr. Frances Jensen at Boston Children's studies this. Here is a video of her explaining it better than I can:

As I've thought about this, as a pediatrician and a mom of teens, I think it makes evolutionary sense. I mean, think about what adolescents need to do. They have to not only learn a tremendous amount, but learn about and do things they know nothing about. Imagine having to take physics as an adult -- or learn French, or how to drive, or how to be an electrician or a lawyer. Adolescents routinely take on things that are new and unfamiliar -- without any guarantee of success. From asking out the pretty girl (and falling in love!) to the first job to leaving home to going to graduate school, youth is all about taking chances. It's a lot easier to take chances when you are wired to be impulsive and confident than when you realize your limitations -- and your mortality.

So whether it's standing up in a moving pickup truck or drinking hand sanitizer, these crazy things that kids do aren't only normal, but -- as weird and scary and dangerous as they may be -- they are part of something good.
This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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