Student Life Speaker Sheds Light on Teenage Brain

Dr. Abigail Judge addresses students at a recent Student Life assembly.

Teens need to know the difference between “hot” and “cold” cognition, and how making decisions in each of these emotional states can bring vastly different outcomes. Student Life Speaker Abigail Judge, a Cambridge therapist who also teaches at Harvard Medical School and conducts research at Massachusetts General Hospital, connected with her teenage audience using humor and self-deprecation during a recent assembly. Her message: know your brain.

“Hot” cognition occurs when emotions are high, when someone is upset, angry, or sad. Teens in this state should notice their feelings (a tight stomach, sweaty hands, a feeling of anguish, for example) and put their phone down. This is not the time to send a text or reply to a provoking phone call. In the cold light of day, Judge said, we all make better judgment calls on how to interact with people.

Until young people reach around 25, their prefrontal cortex, the center for executive functioning, is not fully developed. Meanwhile, their amygdala, the seat of emotions, is up and running. When we examine this imbalance, we can help teens understand how their brains are different than adults’ brains. And adults who understand the differences can help young people move through those “hot” cognition moments, and act when their emotions run cooler.

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