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Teenage brains and risk

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. The desire to push ourselves to take risks and try new activities is what makes us dare things we might fail at, such as going for promotion, walking into a room of people we don’t know, or trying a new activity 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 makes us feel excited. 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 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 don’t feel like doing anything at all.

But dopamine is “addictive” – in the sense that it’s the chemical involved in pleasure and desire and the “reward pathways” which are activated when we repeat actions that we find pleasurable. Some studies have suggested that the dopamine-producing areas are suppressed in some teenagers (suggesting that they may require more stimulus to produce the effect) and others have found that there is appreciably more dopamine activity in some teenagers. [Galvan A, Adolescent development of the reward system. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 2010; 4:1-9. And Spear LP, Adolescent Neurodevelopment.  J Adolescent Health.  2013; 52(2 0 2): S7–13. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2012.05.006.]

The parts of the brain implicated in the desire to act are the emotional ones: the limbic system, 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 may often have a strong desire to act with a weak ability to say no and to value or measure future danger.

Additionally – and fascinatingly – research shows on fMRI scanning that teenagers use different brain areas (and show more brain activity in the reward centres) 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, this becomes significant. (On the other hand, I’d argue that the extra risk is equally or also explained by the fact that if they have others in the car then they are very likely to be chatting and therefore distracted, and, being newer drivers, they haven’t automated the processes of driving to the extent that more experienced drivers have.)

So, what can we do about this?

After all, no one can really choose which parts of the brain to use.

First, note that the way the brain learns is by trying: practising. So, by setting the boundaries and encouraging teenagers to take responsibility and think, we encourage the prefrontal cortex to develop more quickly.

Second, the brain also learns by copying, so teenagers must see adults making good decisions.

Third, by understanding the danger spots (specifically, the power of peers), we can anticipate risk areas ourselves and have a chance to minimise serious problems.

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.

So, a fourth thing adults can do is frame desirable situations to encourage risk-taking. For example, “I dare you to try out for the school play” or “Let’s see if you’re brave enough to present in front of the class” or “Yes, you risk failure but what if you succeed? How amazing that will be. You’ll never know unless you try.”

In a nutshell: risk-taking is good; learning to measure risks better is the goal. You have to want to take the risk and then stop and think: “What are the long-term benefits to success or failure? If I mess up, how bad would that be? If I succeed, how will that really help me?”

And humans of all ages are not very good at calculating risk. But we can get better with knowledge and practice.

RISK-TAKING research links

Teenagers take longer to judge if something is risky – from the New Scientist – “Teenagers fail to see the consequences”, by Abigail Baird

Greater sensitivity to reward/risk: from the Society for Neuroscience “Brain Differences In Adolescents, Psychopaths, Lend To Their Impulsive, Risk-taking Behavior”

Re emotion and risk-taking – “The Adolescent Brain” by Casey, Jones and Hare: “Adolescence is a developmental period characterized by suboptimal decisions and actions that are associated with an increased incidence of unintentional injuries, violence, substance abuse, unintended pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases.”

Teenage decisions are often not decisions but impulsive – research by Meg Gerrard, which is referenced here

“Peer influences on adolescent risk-taking” – by Albert, Chein and Steinberg

“A Social Neuroscience Perspective on Adolescent Risk-taking” by Laurence Steinberg

For more detail and context, see my book, Blame My Brain, and the ADOLESCENT BRAINS AND LIVES section of my website.

I’ve done INSET sessions on risk and resilience, as well as metacognition, growth mindset, and many aspects of teenage wellbeing. Do contact me if you’re interested.

Do comment but please remember that this site is for all ages.

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