Girls really do mature quicker than boys, scientists find

shutterstock_200798993According to the nursery rhyme, little girls are made of ‘sugar and spice and all things nice’ – while boys are made of ‘slugs and snails and puppy dog tails’. Of course, this isn’t scientific fact. However, neuroscience is discovering that there are gender differences that are less obvious than visible physical characteristics.

It is well-known that girls mature faster than boys. We can see this from the evidence of physical changes if we visit a Year 7 classroom. With a few exceptions, 11-12-year-olds are largely an assortment of post-pubescent, apparently mature young women, and pre-pubescent immature little boys, despite sharing the same ages. If there are differences in body development, what differences are there in brain development and psychological maturity?

Newcastle University scientists have discovered that girls’ brains begin maturing at the age of 10, whereas some men don’t experience the same development of those organisational structures until they are 20. In other words, girl’s brains can develop up to ten years sooner than boys’.

Newcastle University was experimenting on how the brain stores information when researchers discovered that brain maturation ‘prunes’ information and focuses on what is important.

“We found there is a difference between boys and girls in terms of development,” Dr Marcus Kaiser said. “We found that the brain begins to prune neural connections which it does not think are important.”

This may happen when a girl is 10 years old, but in the case of boys, the same process may not occur until they are 15-20 years old.

During this pruning process, similar memories, sounds or sights appearing several times in the brain are shut down. This is useful in ridding the brain of extraneous or duplicated information. Important connections, such as linking a familiar person’s voice to their face, are preserved.

“The loss of connectivity during brain development can actually help to improve brain function by reorganizing the network more efficiently,” Researcher Sol Lim said. “Say, instead of talking to many people at random, asking a couple of people who have lived in the area for a long time is the most efficient way to know your way. In a similar way, reducing some projections in the brain helps to focus on essential information.”

“Previous studies have shown that the brain does a lot of re-organising during puberty. There is greater activity during this time,” said Dr Kaiser. “But it was rather unexpected to find that these changes were starting much earlier in girls, in comparison with boys. Around 10 to 12, you start to see a lot of activity in the brains of girls as this pruning takes place, but it was between 15 to 20 for boys.”

The EPSRC-funded Human Green Brain project examines human brain development. This research work is part of this project, and details are published in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

Georges Petitjean

Founder, Arthur Coaching

Arthur trains individuals to become professional Young People Coaches. Our mission is to facilitate access to quality leadership coaching for young people.

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Arthur Coaching: The Brain is to Blame

shutterstock_195037466A common problem that parents/teachers/employers and young people experience is a gap in understanding. Adults use phrases like: “we speak different languages” or “we’re like ships that pass in the night” to describe the communication between them. Often, both adult and young person are experiencing the same sort of frustration and feelings.

In the last 30 years, behavioural scientists have reported that adolescents undergo massive changes in cognitive and emotional capacities which continue into early adulthood, well beyond teenage years. Brain scientists – neuroscientists – have more recently discovered similar changes in the brain.

There are valid explanations for young people’s unique attitudes and thinking. From neuroscience, we have learned that the prefrontal cortex of the adolescent brain is not yet operational until the person’s mid-twenties. This part of the brain is responsible for rational thought, planning, decision-making, impulse-control and emotional control – so maybe it’s understandable that young people indulge in risk-taking and what we might consider to be unreasonable behaviour.

Teens and adults use different parts of their brains to process reading facial expressions and feelings. Teens not only misread the feelings on an adult’s face, they also react strongly from an area deep inside the brain: the amygdala, a small almond shaped area that guides instinct or gut reactions. When teenagers get older and move into adulthood, the centre of activity shifts more toward the frontal cortex.

Meanwhile, adults rely on the frontal cortex, which governs reason and planning. The frontal cortex gives adults the ability to distinguish a subtlety of expression, to use reason (to rationalise), organise their thinking, plan, control their impulses and reactions. The frontal cortex has been described as the ‘conductor of the orchestra’. If you imagine a bunch of musicians doing their own thing, without co-ordination, order, planning or organisation, that might be like a young person’s brain. Emotions, hormones, thoughts, feelings and reactions are all firing off, without the controlling or management influence of the frontal cortex. Reactions, rather than rational thought, come from the amygdala, leading to impulsivenes or risk-taking behaviour.

Maybe that explains why the teen to young adult years seem so emotionally turbulent.

Now, how can we use this new knowledge to understand and to communicate better with young people?

Georges Petitjean

Founder, Arthur Coaching

Arthur trains individuals to become professional Young People Coaches. Our mission is to facilitate access to quality leadership coaching for young people.

Now, how can we use this new knowledge to understand and to communicate better with young people?