Researching Risk: Understanding the Adolescent Brain

>>If you’re interested in how people get
to be the way they are, adolescence is such an important time. We really become the person
that we’re going to be for probably the rest of our lives
[music fades in]>>I’m a developmental psychologist. I specialize
in adolescence so I teach and do research on the second decade of the life span and
my research right now focuses on how adolescents make decisions, especially in terms of how
they make decisions about risk taking. The systems of the brain that respond to reward
become very easily aroused so things that feel good feel even better. For that reason
people are very attracted to going after rewarding experiences, even if they might be a little
bit dangerous. So that kind of impels kids toward risky behaviors. A lot of my interest
in adolescent risk taking and decision making grew out of a project I was involved in that
looked at juvenile justice policy and practice. During the last decade, the U.S. Supreme Court has
considered three landmark cases involving juvenile crime, probably the most important
of which was a case involving the constitutionality of the juvenile death penalty. We were really
delighted to see that our work was cited by the court in its opinions that banned the
juvenile death penalty and that placed limits on the use of life without parole as a sentence
for juveniles. Adolescents are different from adults in ways that make them less responsible
for their behavior. They’re more impulsive, they’re more short-sighted, they’re more easily
influenced by their peers so we developed a video driving game that we call Stop Light.
You try to get some place in a hurry. You approach an intersection, the light turns
yellow and you make a decision about whether you’re going to run it or not. So we can take this
task into the MRI and have people play this game while we’re capturing brain images
and what we have found is, first, adolescents take many more risks when they’re doing a
task in front of their friends than when they’re doing it by themselves.
>>I’m good man. Good luck in there! We’re going to be watching you.
>>But second, when adolescents are doing the driving game, playing Stop Light with
their friends watching, parts of their brain that get excited by the prospect of a reward
are lighting up. They’re being activated. And we have shown that the extent to which
the brain lights up during this task predicts how much risk taking you engage in. So if
we could get kids to stop doing things that put themselves in jeopardy, we could really
improve the health of American young people.