Is teen behavior a product of biology, culture, or both?

A new article by Robert Epstein in Scientific American Mind sets out to dispel the myth that the teen brain is rooted in turmoil. Historically, teenagedom is a relatively recent invention. Epstein claims that in the past, teens did not act quite so out of control, and suggests that behavioral problems are influenced not just by the physical changes that are part of the brain’s lifelong growth and evolution, but are impacted (more?) by chemical, electrical or anatomical properties in the brain.

As someone who has been very supportive of the work and theories of doctors like Jay Giedd, I’m taking this article with a grain of salt. Perhaps it’s true that we can’t make generalizations based solely on brain scans, but regardless of whether you believe biology or culture play the larger role in teen behavior, the conclusion rings true that teens have the potential to perform in exemplary ways, and it’s all about giving them support and options. And, when we treat teens with respect and set high expectations, they almost always rise to the challenge.

I am adding this article to the Syllabus for my Pain in the Brain class, offered through YALSA for the month of July. If you haven’t already registered, please sign up at:

I am finalizing my syllabus (just need to verify all the links work!) for release on Monday June 4.

Epstein, Robert. “The Myth of the Teen Brain.” Scientific American Mind, April 8 2007.

About Beth Gallaway

Beth Gallaway was named a Library Journal Mover & Shaker in 2006 for her work in advocating for videogames in libraries. She is an independent library trainer/consultant specializing in gaming, technology, and youth services, and is a YALSA certified Serving the Underserved (SUS) trainer.

2 Thoughts on “Nature or Nurture?

  1. Arlen [Visitor] on June 1, 2007 at 9:29 pm said:

    I read this article, too, and have been talking about it ever since! It left an impression on me and made me wonder if we have a chance of undoing or reversing or modifying the [often awkward? painful? deprecating?] adolescent experience our Western culture has created for our young adults. It seems as though our society uses the term “young adults” when it is convenient – when the elders are trying to convince the teens to act more maturely – but hasn’t yet convinced the adults that young adults truly exist. Either you’re 18, or you’re not.

  2. With all due respect, you don’t seem to understand what I wrote. I agree with you completely that “teens have the potential to perform in exemplary ways, and it’s all about giving them support and options.” I show this in my new book, The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen. In the article you mentioned, I show that there is no evidence whatsoever to support the assertion that teen problems are caused by a faulty brain. In my view, those assertions constitute scientific fraud. In more than 100 cultures around the world, teen turmoil is completely absent. If teen problems were programmed by a faulty brain, we would see that turmoil everywhere; we certainly do not. The “teen brain” is a dangerous myth being perpetuated by drug companies and some dishonest or poorly trained researchers. Having taught courses on research methods at the doctoral level, I can assure you that there is no “teen brain” – and that the teen problems we see are entirely the creation of modern culture. For further details, please visit and take a careful look at my new book.

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