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Professor explores adolescent reasoning, behavior

| Friday, December 4, 2015

Professor of psychology, Daniel Lapsley, said the majority of teenagers violate the law in some way; he stole a Bob Dylan album when he was younger, but this behavior is not indicative of a teen at risk of a life of crime.

Lapsley, who also serves as the chair of the Psychology Department, spoke in the Eck Visitors Center auditorium Thursday evening about adolescent development and its effect on behavior and the formation of identity. Lapsley’s talk was titled “The Promise and Perils of Adolescence” and was sponsored by the Notre Dame Club of St. Joseph Valley.

Lapsley said changes in the way the brain processes serotonin and dopamine during adolescence can affect the way an adolescent weighs decisions and their consequences.

“The teen is more drawn to the potential benefits of a decision than the potential consequences, and this is because of the work of the limbic system,” he said. “Teens are drawn to immediate benefit, so much so that they are willing to settle for less as long as the benefit is received faster.”

“As kids get older, they are more likely to consider both the risk and the benefit of their decisions, and they are more likely to consider the long term consequences of their actions,” he said.

Lapsley said there are elements of adolescence that are shared across different species — something that is a result of evolutionary changes in the brain.

“This occurs not just in human adolescence, but across all mammalian species,” Lapsley said. “This indicates that this risk-taking and sensation-seeking conveys an evolutionary advantage, which is a point I hope you keep in mind in worrying about of your own kids.”

“As result, teenagers are more emotional, more responsive to stress and more likely to engage in reward and sensation-seeking,” he said. “These changes also make teenagers more vulnerable to substance abuse and depression.”

Lapsley said a concern to answer the question “Who am I?” drives the intellectual complexity of the adolescent. The search for the answer to this question, he said, can result in a sense of egocentrism in which teens feel as though they are the center of the attention.

“As a consequence of adolescent egocentrism, teens are set to construct imaginary audiences,” Lapsley said. “They assume that they are on stage and everyone else in their lives is the audience they are playing to, and so this is said to account for the heightened sense of self-consciousness. You’d be self-conscious too if you thought the whole school was buzzing about you, noticing all of your flaws and applauding your achievements.”

The professor said adolescence is characterized by a search for identity, one that is consistent between the person you were as a child and the promise of what you will be in adulthood.

“I think individuation is a balancing between agency and community,” Lapsley said. “This is sometimes called the basic duality of human existence. We all want to be independent and autonomous, but we don’t want to be isolated or alienated or lonely.

“As much we yearn for attachment, union and love, we don’t want to be enmeshed in our relationships. We must strike a balance, and a lot of the pain of adolescence is trying to find out where that balance is.”

He said improving the ability of a child to cope with adversity doesn’t take anything exotic; it just takes the formation of meaningful, healthy relationships.

“The most important part of resiliency is that a kid has one good relationship with a caring adult who conveys that to the child,” Lapsley said. “Children bring a lot to the table, but the most important thing is that this recruit the attention of an adult in a child’s life.”

Lapsley said he hopes his audience identifies with his topics in the same way he identifies with them.

“I think that’s why I got into this,” he said. “I think that’s why I study adolescence, because at the end of the day the topics that are of interest to me, that I like to study and write about, are things that I think I’ve wrestled with myself.”

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