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Emotional responses in the brain

Watch Donna Pendergast and Katherine Main explain the link between emotional responses in the brain and adolescent thinking and behaviour.
In the last 15 to 20 years, we’ve learned more about the human brain than in the centuries before. technologies, such as neuroimaging have given us new insights that better inform our understanding of the human brain. This work is in its infancy, and the coming decades promise to reveal some of the more complex relationships of the developing adolescent brain, such as how gender and puberty affect brain development and cognition, the effects of culture, sleep, diet, and other environmental factors, atypical brain development and the emotional responses in the brain.
The structural and functional brain changes that occur during adolescence enable increase memory, efficiency, and processing, while at the same time there’s increased vulnerability, such as risk taking and increased sensitivity to mental illness. So what do we know about the adolescent brain and emotions? The brain is a complex network of neurons processing information constantly. Emotions in the brain are controlled by the limbic system, which is located in the temporal lobe. The limbic system is made up of multiple parts of the brain. Feelings of happiness and pleasure are linked to the prefrontal cortex. Anger, fear, sadness, and other negative emotions are linked to the amygdala. Neurons sends signals through chemicals known as neurotransmitters, the most common being dopamine and serotonin.
Dopamine is released during experiences of pleasure. It’s a key factor in the reward learning process. When you do something good, you’re rewarded with dopamine. You experience a pleasurable happy feeling. So you learn to repeat this to experience the feeling again. Serotonin is in neurotransmitter, associated with memory and learning. An imbalance in serotonin levels results in an increase in anger, anxiety, depression, and panic. For adolescents, the brain is undergoing rapid change, impacting on the emotional response. This shaping of the adolescent brain occurs through the process of synaptic pruning. This is the process where the unused connections in the thinking and processing part of the brain are pruned away.
At the same time, those connections that are utilised, are strengthened, and hardwired into the brain by coating the synapses in an insulating substance called myelin. The dual process of synaptic pruning and myelination means that each brain is a unique design, bringing together both experience and biology, ultimately making the brain more efficient. The brain’s capacity to reshape and reorganise its connections is known as neuroplasticity. This process is part of cognitive maturation and is based on the principle use it or lose it. Synaptic pruning begins at the back of the brain. Since the prefrontal cortex is at the front of the brain, it’s the last part of the brain to mature through this process.
This typical pattern of maturity has an effect on adolescent cognitive development in important ways. The prefrontal cortex is the executive function or cognitive skills part of the brain. It’s where decision making, planning, and thinking about consequences of actions, solving problems and controlling impulses, and risk taking abilities are located. For most young people, changes in the prefrontal cortex continue throughout late adolescence and into early adulthood, shaping the character and personality formation. The further consequence of this typical sequence of brain maturation is that younger adolescents and also many who are entering early adulthood don’t have well-developed capabilities in the executive functioning region of the brain. They don’t make decisions and solve problems using the prefrontal cortex as adults do.
They’re not using the prefrontal cortex to plan and make reasoned logical decisions or to control risk taking and impulsive behaviour. Instead, they rely on the amygdala, which is centrally located in the brain, where synaptic pruning is already taking place. The amygdala is responsible for the perception of emotions, such as anger, fear, sadness, aggression, instinct, and impulsive behaviour. This explains how adolescent thinking and behaviour might seem illogical and inconsistent and be based on emotion rather than logical thinking.

Does adolescent thinking and behaviour sometimes seem illogical, inconsistent or emotively biased? Could this be related to the major changes occurring in the adolescent brain?

This video introduces you to some of the unique aspects of the developing adolescent brain. During adolescence, the brain is undergoing rapid changes which, in turn, impact on the emotional responses of adolescents. We introduce you to concepts such as:

  • synaptic pruning
  • neuroplasticity
  • the second sensitive brain development period

We also shed some light on why it is during adolescence, more than at most other developmental stages, that people may exhibit:

  • risk taking
  • sadness
  • emotional responses
  • impulsive behaviour

After watching our video, for more insight into the teenage brain, you may like to watch the additional TEDxYouth video presented by Adriana Galván. Find a link to Dr Galván’s video in the See also section at the end of the step.

Your task

Watch Donna and Katherine’s video about emotional responses in the brain.

Reflect on the video and your understanding of cognitive and emotional development in young adolescents. To help you think creatively and consider all sides of the matter, why not try using Dr. Edward de Bono’s Plus, Minus, Interesting (PMI) method to organise your thoughts?1 List the positive (plus), negative (minus) and neutral (interesting) aspects of the information you have been presented with.

Share your reflection in the comments.


  1. The Edward de Bono Foundation. Direct attention thinking tools [Internet]. 2014 [cited 2018 Aug 23]. Available from: 

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