The Teen Brain on Rage: How It's Different : Discovery News
Aug. 13, 2012 --
The shooting deaths of three people near Texas A&M University today, making this the third major act of gun violence in the United States within the past 30 days, is bound to reignite a debate about gun control. The country was still reeling from the deadly tragedy at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., which left 12 people dead, and another act of domestic terrorism at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, leaving seven dead including the shooter. Colorado, Wisconsin and Texas aren't the only states to have their gun laws come under scrutiny following a shooting tragedy. Other states with even more lax laws have also drawn fire.
The killing of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old high school student who was unarmed at the time, stirred controversy over the application of justice in the shooting. Florida's gun ownership laws came under scrutiny. George Zimmerman, the 28-year-old shooter and self-described neighborhood watch captain, had a concealed carry permit, easily obtained in the state. Florida also has laws in place the protect the use of firearms. A 2005 "Stand Your Ground" law allows the use of deadly force if there's the reasonable expectation of a threat, even if the supposed attacker is unarmed.
Following a shooting in Tuscon, Ariz. on Jan. 8, 2011 that left congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords critically wounded and resulted in the deaths of six people, Arizona's gun laws, considered among the nation's most lenient, drew widespread media attention. The state of Arizona allows anyone over age 21 to not only own a firearm, but also conceal a handgun without needing a permit. In fact, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed a bill in January 2010 repealing a law requiring concealed-carry permits, according to NPR. Twice already this year, Arizona state lawmakers have considered two bills loosening gun ownership restrictions. One bill brought before the Arizona Senate would have allowed gun owners to carry concealed weapons on university campuses, a measure that stalled because of the controversy that ensued from the idea of allowing guns in schools. A second bill drafted in the Arizona House would allow gun owners to carry in public buildings, and is "quietly moving toward passage," according to the Arizona Republic. This photo shows ammunition being sold at the Pima County gun show in 2011 one week after the shooting in Tuscon.
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Nearly five years ago, 32 people at Virginia Tech were killed when a mentally ill student went a on a shooting spree before turning the gun on himself. Virginia's laws are similar to restrictions imposed by other states on gun ownership. The state requires permits for concealed carry, which is subject to a review process. The state also has a 22-year-old law requiring criminal background checks on gun sales -- a law which the current governor, Bob McDonnell, says he's evaluating in a January interview with the Virginian Pilot. The state, however, does have what gun control advocates call a major loophole: private dealers may sell firearms at gun shows without a background check. Without a background check, according to gun control proponents, criminals have ready access to weapons at gun shows. In 2011, an American-born al-Qaeda spokesman even encouraged potential terrorists in a video statement to take advantage of similar loopholes in the United States. In this photo, mourners hold a vigil following the Virginia Tech massacre.
Mississippi not only has some of the most permissive gun laws of any state; it also has the second-highest number of firearm-related fatalities per 100,000 people. A new law passed in Mississippi in December 2011 allows residents to carry guns in public places, including "bars, courthouses and college campuses," according to a UPI report. Mississippi also has highest "export rates" of any state, that is the number of guns sold in Mississippi to criminals who use them in another, according to a study led by a coalition called Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
Mississippi might have the second-highest rate of gun-related fatalities, but Alaska leads the list -- and also has even more lax gun laws than Mississippi. Nearly 21 people in 100,000 die as a result of a firearm in Alaska. Like Arizona, Alaska law allows for anyone over 21 to purchase a firearm. The state also permits concealed and open carry. There are some restrictions in Alaska, however. While Arizona is currently considering a law allowing guns in public buildings, carrying weapons in these areas is prohibited by Alaska laws. Private business owners also are allowed to use their discretion as to whether they allow firearms in their establishments.
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Like its neighbor Arizona, New Mexico's lax gun ownership laws make it a prime location for buying guns for the purpose of interstate arms trafficking. New Mexico doesn't require permits for purchase, possession or open carry. Concealed carry permits require the completion of a gun safety course. Weapons used by drug cartels in Mexico often originate in the United States due to the ease with which criminals can buy guns and smuggle them across the border, as reported by CNN. These firearms are usually purchased in border states, like New Mexico.
Montana has limited restrictions on gun ownership, requiring permits only for concealed carry. In 2009, Montana passed the Montana Firearms Freedom Act (PDF), a bill that challenged federal authority of the state to regulate guns made and sold in Montana. The move proved controversial, and the bill has been tied up in the court system.
Discovery News: Guns
An immature brain may play a role in making teens like the 17-year-old Ohio shooting suspect more prone to violence.
- The 17-year-old suspect in the school shootings in Ohio has been described as a loner from a troubled home.
- During adolescence, the brain is in a stage of adaptation
- This makes it challenging for teens to make good decisions in the heat of the moment.
In the weeks and months following a tragedy like this week's school shooting in Ohio, experts and lawyers and school psychologists and classmates will try to make sense of the actions of the 17-year-old suspect.
In all likelihood, though, no one will ever be able to pinpoint a single reason, said pyschologist David Walsh, author of "Why Do They Act That Way? A Survival Guide to the Adolescent Brain for You and Your Teen."
"There are usually multiple factors that take a long time to sort out," Walsh said. "It's irrational, so looking for a reason can be somewhat frustrating. There are many kids who probably share that profile who don't do anything remotely like what he did.
Science, however, can shed some light on how he and other teenagers think.
"Adolescents can make good decisions," insists B. J. Casey, a neuroscientist at Weill Cornell Medical College. "They can make better decisions than you or I. But it is in the heat of the moment that they get into trouble."
That's because the reward-sensitive areas of the brain are maturing with the onset of puberty. There's been a long-held view that teens make poor decisions because they don't think through consequences. Since the 1990s, we've known that brains go through extensive development in adolescence.
Myelin, or white matter, provides more insulation and boosts the ability of the axons to send signals faster. New connections are being made in the frontal cortex and older ones are dying.
But new research shows that understanding the consequences of decisions isn't exactly the problem: In emotionally neutral situations, teenagers take risks similarly to adults. And if it were simply the matter of an immature brain, children would make worse decisions than teens, Casey said. But they don't.
What throws teens off is the reward for taking a risk. And since teens are so tuned into their peers, showing off for friends is perceived as a huge reward.
"Basically, they can make pretty good judgments and decisions in cold situations that don't involve emotions or rewards, but in the heat of the moment their decisions tend to fall apart," Casey said.
Take the research of Laurence Steinberg, a professor of developmental psychology at Temple University: When he watched teens and adults play a video game in which you try to drive from one end of town to the other as quickly as possible, he noticed the teens chanced running red lights at about the same rate that adults did.
But when he brought the teenager's friends into the room to watch, the teens tried to gun it through the lights -- taking twice as many risks as they did in an empty room. The adults drove the same with onlookers.
"It is very difficult for a 16-year-old to resist peer pressure in a heated, volatile situation," Steinberg said in a press release after one of his studies. "Most times, there is no time to talk to an adult to inject some reason and reality to the situation. Many crimes committed by adolescents are done in groups with other teens and are not premeditated."
Another study showed that teens use different areas of their brains to perceive emotion.
When scientists at the McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., showed a group of teenagers and a group of adults pictures of faces, the adults correctly identified the emotion in the pictures as fear.
The teens' answers varied...and, because the scientists were watching the brain activity of the subjects through functional magnetic resonance imaging, the researchers could tell the teens were using the amygdala, a small region of the brain that's known for gut reactions, whereas the adults used the frontal cortex.
Andrea Zanchi/Getty Images
Here's where parents might wonder why on earth the brain would be programmed that way during adolescence. Casey, herself a mother to a 17-year-old boy, has spent a lot of time pondering that question, and has developed a theory of adaptation. When kids are young, parents act as their prefrontal cortex, she said. As teens venture out into the world, that has to change.
"The reason we think this is going on," she said, "is that you reach puberty and you need to go out and find a mate and other resources, and something's got to pull you out of your comfortable environment. It's a period of time where they need to learn how to be able to adapt to social pressures; to test the waters."
What, then, can parents and schools do?
Turns out that locking them up until they're 21 is not the right thing to do, Casey said. When her son was hitting puberty at age 11 or 12, she remembers him coming in the door from school shouting a torrent of inappropriate words.
"I was so taken aback I couldn't say anything," Casey said. "He stomped up to his room and I cooked dinner. An hour later he came down and nudged up against me as if to say, Are you really going to feed me after that? I said, You had a rough day, huh?"
That cooling off period can be essential, and it can come in a variety of forms, Casey said: a text message from a parent, a relaxation or yoga break in a classroom -- "just giving them a minute to take it down a notch."
She's implemented a new rule at her house: her son and his friends must replace profanity with words like "intercourse" or "poop." "It's just enough so that when a heated debate gets emotionally charged, they start laughing," she said.
While teens are primarily in tune with their peers, they do need -- and even want -- their parents to set limits, Casey said.
Walsh has noticed a shift in what parents are worried about.
"It used to be, 30 years ago, most parents would worry about their kids being a victim," Walsh said. "That's still true, but a growing number of parents worry that their teen could be a perpetrator."
The warning signals are always easy to see in hindsight, he said. In the case of the Ohio shooting suspect, there were several red flags: he came from a troubled home, had behavior issues and he was exceptionally quiet.
Finding a way to draw those kids out could help, Walsh said.
"It gets to be more challenging as we've made our high schools bigger and bigger and easy for kids to disappear," he said. "We really have to start to figure out how to help kids from becoming anonymous."