TLAB15: Keynote 1: Sarah Jayne Blakemore

I love Blakemore’s sessions! This year’s theme is “All in the mind” so she is ideal to open the conference.

She begins by talking about adolescence as a concept, suggesting that some people think it is a modern construct; however there is clearly adolescence in other species: for example, rats have a few days of adolescence during which they demonstrate other behaviours, like drinking more alcohol when with other adolescent rats.

Typical adolescent behaviour, like risk taking and per influence, has been the subject of many lab experiments over the years, partly because adolescents are more likely to die as a result of their own rims taking than any other age group, thanks to a peak in risk taking at this age. Blakemore shares Larry Steinberg’s work with a driving video simulation to show that peer influence has a significant impact on risk taking.

We look at the results of social exclusion lab experiments that show that adolescents have a significant mood drop when they are not included by their peers. We then hear about a study of how risk perception changes according to social influence, which showed that young adolescents are more heavily influenced by other teenagers than they are by adults, since they changed their risk rating more when presented with data from other teenagers than from adults. Blakemore tells us about studies in the US where researchers identified the coolest kid in the the class and bombarded them with negative press about smoking, etc, and tracked changing attitudes across the class, adjusting social norms. This is great, and something I think most secondary teachers would recognise from their own classrooms. GCSE classes often seem to pull towards the attitude and ability of the most popular students in it, I have observed.

We then look at details of grey matter development in the brain throughout adolescence. I have shared bits of this with a lot of students since hearing it first last year. Frontal grey matter decreases through adolescence, which suggests that the brain is being shaped and fine tuned by the environment that child is in. Children have vastly more synapses connecting their neurons until they reach adolescence. Synaptic pruning then takes place, and this is determined by what synapses are being used, which is influenced by environment, culture etc.

Blakemore shares the football match picture with the missed goal, pointing out that we can identify how these people feel just by looking at them (something I point out to my students when we do source inferences). This skill develops extremely early.

Blakemore finishes by sharing her Science23 website – more investigations needed here!

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