In my talks and in Blame My Brain, I explain that risk is important. It’s biologically programmed into us to take some risks in order to succeed. We mustn’t just think of risk as being about physical danger. Risk-taking also includes experience-seeking and sensation-seeking; and the desire to push ourselves to take some risks and try new activities is what makes us dare to do things we might fail at, such as going for promotion, or trying something new that we might not be good at.
In biological terms, each time we take a risk we are urged on by the rush of a neuro-transmitter called dopamine, which is exacerbated when we succeed. I call dopamine the “yes” chemical – it’s what makes us want to say yes to things, to try them, to take the risk. We need some dopamine to make any active choice, even to get out of bed in the morning. People who are depressed often lack sufficient dopamine levels, which is why people with depression often find they don’t feel like doing anything at all.
But dopamine is addictive. And there’s evidence that at least some teenagers have different dopamine responses (meaning that they may need more stimulus to feel the dopamine rush). Some studies have suggested that the dopamine-producing areas are suppressed in some teenagers (again suggesting that they may require more stimulus to produce the effect.)
The parts of the brain implicated in the desire to act are the emotional ones: the limbic system, which is well-developed in children and teenagers. But the part we need in order to make a more calculated assessment and controlled decision is the prefrontal cortex, which doesn’t develop fully into well into the twenties. So, in teenagers you have a strong desire to act with a weak ability to say no and to value or measure future danger.
Additionally – and fascinatingly – recent research shows on fMRI scanning that teenagers use different brain areas when deciding about risk if they feel their peers are aware of the decision. And when you realise that teenagers are five times more likely to have a car accident when driving with others in the car than when alone…
So, what can we do about this? After all, no one can really choose which parts of the brain to use. Well, first, the way we learn is by trying. The brain learns by practising. So, by setting the boundaries and by incentivising teenagers to take responsibility and think, we encourage the prefrontal cortex to develop more quickly. We also learn by modelling, so teenagers need to see adults making good decisions. And by understanding the danger spots (specifically, the power of peers), we can anticipate risk areas ourselves and try to minimise serious risk.
But teenagers do need to be able to take risks. Playing sport and negotiating moderately dangerous situations are ways in which they can take some risks, enjoy the dopamine, and push themselves further. No life can (or should) be made entirely safe.
Alcohol and drugs, however, pose a whole different level of risk, and I’ll come to that in another post.
RISK-TAKING research links
For more detail and context, look out for the new edition of Blame My Brain, coming in May.
Apologies for the bombardment of posts about the teenage brain at the moment. It’s honestly not my only obsession…
CURRENTLY WRITING: The Guide to Teenage Stress - publishing autumn 2014