UCL News


Science throws new light on why teenage Kevin finds life so unfair

16 September 2005

Neuroscientists have solved the great Kevin conundrum.

The comedian Harry Enfield's creation, the petulant teenager Kevin, finds life unfair because he cannot recognise paternal wrath, maternal sadness or even a tut-tutting tone of voice.

Researchers have found that teenage angst and clashes with authority may be caused by changes in the brain during puberty, but luckily for harassed parents the problems pass.

The ability of boys and girls to decode social cues and recognise emotions, particularly anger and sadness, dips between 12 and 14, according to a study by UCL's Institute of Child Health.

"It would appear that this is a function of the development of their brain at that time," Professor David Skuse [ICH], of the group's behavioural science unit, told a conference yesterday.

Professor Skuse and colleagues measured the social skills and emotional sophistication of children from the age of six by testing whether they could identify expressions in standard experimental photographs, and whether they could recognise familiar faces.

They found that at six, girls were significantly better than boys at interpreting facial expressions of anger and other emotions. But at puberty, both sexes seemed suddenly to lose this skill. "The remarkable thing is it looks as though when the brain reorganises itself during puberty - rewires itself if you like as a consequence of the hormonal changes that are taking place - we actually get worse at recognising facial expressions and indeed remembering faces that we have seen before, than we were five years previously," Professor Skuse told the British Association science festival in Dublin.

He had begun the research to test a theory that autism might be an extreme form of normal male capacities. Autistic children have difficulty in understanding the thoughts or emotions of others. They found that 70 per cent of boys were less advanced at recognising emotions than the mean of all the girls.

This might explain why teachers found some boys more difficult to control with stern expressions. It did not offer proof that autism was essentially maleness at its worst.

"But there is a deterioration in recognition of and memory for faces, and for some facial expressions, particularly sadness and anger, at puberty in boys and girls," he said. "Does this explain the Kevin phenomenon?" As a parent, he had direct experience.

"One wonders sometimes if they actually understand anything you are saying to them . . . It is not, I would suggest, a cultural phenomenon. It is a real, biologically-based phenomenon from which, fortunately, they recover."

Tim Radford, 'The Guardian'