Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Teens and risk

Many adults, if they are honest, will admit they were lucky to get out of their adolescence alive. Or without serving jail time. Or without screwing up their lives in countless other ways. Adolescence is a mine field, but it's a mine field laid by none other than the adolescent himself.

None of this is exactly breaking news, but new studies appear to be tossing an additional piece of the puzzle into the mix.

Studies of adolescent rats show that they are eager to spend less time with their parents and more with other young rats. They want to explore their world and grab what they want, and they are willing to take risks to do so. For instance, a "teen" rat (about seven weeks old) who wants squirts of sweetened condensed milk will press a lever far more times than younger or older rats - even though they are paying way too much in energy expended for the squirts.

Similarly, human teens facing card games or other tests in the lab will take ridiculous risks trying to win. Now, it happens that our reward circuitry in the brain has separate systems for trying to win and for assessing risks. Teens' thinking about risk may lag behind their ability to think about rewards.

This evolutionary goad to help get teens out of the nest may be backfiring in modern times, when risks such as fast driving, drug use and unsafe sex are a lot more dangerous than risks used to be. Mother Nature may be out of sync with today's real world.

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