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In August of 2001, Mitch Prinstein, a psychology professor who had just been hired at Yale University, offered his first class at the school: a course he had developed about popularity among children and adolescents.
The phenomenon that was supposed to be nowhere—popularity as another childish thing, to be given up at the onset of adulthood—was, it turned out, everywhere. “In a very real manner,” Prinstein writes, “our experiences with popularity are always occupying our minds.” He adds: “We never really left high school at all.”
What happens in the teenage years, Prinstein suggests, is a kind of perfect storm, neurologically speaking: At the start of puberty, the brain grows more dramatically than at any other point in one’s life. Myelin, the fatty substance that coats the neurons and allows the brain to function efficiently, increases, affording a burst of neural activity. Those shifts, along with others, aid the brain’s adolescent transition from childish ways of thought (impulsive, relatively un-self-conscious) to adulthood’s more logical, ruminative, and other-oriented modes.
The result: Newfound brain capacity collides with newfound self-consciousness. The adolescent brain is primed both to take in the world around it more than ever before, and to process that information with more self-awareness than ever before.