Action in the Limbic System
The limbic system, sometimes referred to as the “emotional brain,” is a group of brain structures located deep within the cerebrum. It is composed of the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the hypothalamus. These three structures are involved in the expression of emotions and motivation, particularly those related to survival. Such emotions include fear, anger, and the “fight or flight” response. The limbic system is also involved in feelings of pleasure that reward behaviors related to species survival, such as eating and sex. In addition, limbic system structures have functions related to memory storage and retrieval, particularly memories related to events that invoked a strong emotional response.
Two different studies 1, 2 involving brain scans revealed that when interacting with others, and making decisions, adolescents are more likely than adults to be swayed by their emotions. In addition, adolescents often “read” others’ emotions incorrectly. Both of these studies involved comparing a teen brain to an adult brain and both determined that adolescents’ prefrontal cortexes (where “logical” thinking occurs) are used less often during interpersonal interactions and decision making than their adult counterparts’. Instead, teens relied more on the emotional region of their brains when reading other’s emotions, which is more impulsive as opposed to a logical or measured interpretation.
An understanding of what is going on in the limbic system (and what is not going on in the prefrontal cortex – described more thoroughly in the next section) during adolescence helps provide a partial explanation for some characteristic and familiar adolescent behaviors such as: quickness to anger, intense mood swings and making decisions on the basis of “gut feelings.” Adolescents’ brains are still rooted in the “emotional brain” making it challenging to make what adults consider to be logical and appropriate decisions.