Risk Taking and The Adolescent Brain

I attended a very interesting presentation at my daughter’s school this week on ‘The Mysterious Workings of the Adolescent Brain’. This was part of the Aspire Lecture Series.  The presentation was given by Dr Emma Kilford who is part of the research team at University College London (UC L), working for Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience.

The presentation covered:

  • How the adolescent brain develops
  • Peer influence on risk taking
  • Social exclusion in adolescence and its effects

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) was used to study the adolescent brain and the changes it goes through to maturity. The human brain actually develops from the back to the front. All the complex functions and the social brain network are located at the front of the brain and are the last to develop which would explain why we mature with age – hence why we  make different decisions as adults than we would as a child. MRI scanning confirms that the brain continues to develop into our thirties and that grey matter changes level off around age 28.

The research team were particularly interested with how adolescents approach risk-taking and the difference that peer influence has on them. Their experiment was to monitor young people taking risks when put into a driving game simulator alone and then with their peers. The results were very interesting in that the risk-taking trebled leading to more crashes when the peer group were added. The statistics state that young people are more likely to have a car accident with other young people in the car where adults are more likely to have a crash when alone, so quite the opposite.

Adolescents are hypersensitive to social exclusion which can lead to mood change and affect decision making.  Being in a group can affect the normal behaviour of a young person. For example, a well behaved son and student can behave like a thug when attending a football match with friends and make different decisions than if he was alone.  The choices young people make can differ depending on the social factors. Young people are more likely to smoke, drink or take drugs if their friends are doing it.

The team also looked at how social influence impacts risk perception in adolescents. They presented teenagers with a list of scenarios including swimming in a lake at night, driving without a seatbelt, walking down a dark alleyway alone. They then asked them to rate the risk of each scenario on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being low and 10 being high. The teenagers were then shown data from other teenagers who had rated the risk higher. They then asked the teenagers to do the exercise again and all the ratings went up across the board. This shows that adolescents are influenced by other people’s perceptions. The experiment was also run using the risk ratings of adults which also increased the ratings on the age groups (8 to 11), (15-18), (19 to 25) and (26 to 59). The only group that was influenced more by their peers and not by adults was age group (12 to 14).

To summarise, the adolescent brain goes through many stages of development which can have an affect on decision making, risk-taking, emotions, rewards, happiness and behaviour. Synaptic changes (life experiences stored in the brain) are significant in adolescence and a pruning system occurs where dormant synapses are removed to make room for the ones that are used on a regular basis. Environmental and social influence have a significant impact on the adolescent teenager and explains why they can be so different. There is no such thing as the average teenager!

I found this a very informative and useful presentation and explains some of the reasons why young people behave and make the decisions that they do. I will certainly take this into consideration around the students that I coach in schools.

If you know a young person struggling through adolescence who would benefit from life coaching then please contact me.