December 1, 2011

Teen Brains

What's going on up there?

Jessica: Sometimes parents just don’t understand, right? Well, there is scientific proof that is true! Your brain is different than your parents’. So does that affect some of the decisions you make? Well, take a look.

To anyone but a teenager these kinds of stunts might seem a little crazy.

“Without risk-taking for skateboarding, it’s pointless. The more big things you try, it makes you feel good inside.”

Jessica: Through the ages, thinkers have been trying to figure out why adolescence can be a time of thrill seeking and moody behavior. Research shows the brain changes until around age thirty. Some have said this means teen brains are immature.

But in the past few years, scientists have developed a new explanation. Rather than lacking something, young brains are simply different than adult brains. The new theory says risk-taking has actually been helpful because it pushes young people to move from the safety of home into the world outside.

“We think that maybe adolescence has evolved as a period in development when people are inclined to take risks.”

Jessica: Steinberg says teenagers reason about as well as adults but they weigh risk versus reward defferently.

Take a video driving game Steinberg uses in his research. The goal is to drive across town as fast as possible. Along the way, traffic lights turn from green to yellow. You have to decide whether to stop or keep going. You score more points if you drive through before the light turns red but if you don’t beat the red light you crash and lose points.

The interesting thing is, teens and adults take about the same amount of risks when they are playing the game alone but when they are in the company of friends, young people take more risks.

In teenagers, a part of the brain you might think of as the reward center lights up more when among peers, like when skateboarding.

“Your friends are the ones that motivate you. They’re like your red bull for skateboarding.”

Jessica: Steinberg’s research suggests that teens respond strongly to social rewards. This helps explain why young people spend so much time with friends, why they react so strongly to success and defeat and why they learn so quickly.

“I fall all the time when I skateboard and it’s actually sometimes quite fun and it helps you get better at skateboarding.”

Jessica: But researchers say not everything that was helpful for us in the past still is. The driving game implies that teens are more likely to be swayed by what is sometimes called peer pressure. This can lead to dangerous behavior, like drug use or wreckless driving.

“When we try to give an evolutionary explanation, we need to keep in mind that many things that were adaptive when we were evolving thousands of years ago may not be adaptive today.”

Jessica: Steinberg says it is good to have healthy outlets for risk-taking, like skateboarding in a park with a helmet, rather than on the street without one. The key is to be aware of the fact that you may take more risks when around peers and factor that into your decision-making.

“Peer pressure. If you feel like you can do it, then just go for it. If not, you can just be like, ‘I’m sorry. I’m not ready for this yet.’”


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