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There’s an Upside to the Recklessness of Youth

Nothing ventured, nothing gained, according to the teenage brain.

By Nathan Collins


(Photo: Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images)

Teenagers: Stubborn, rebellious, occasionally prone to especially stupid absurd risks. Yet there may be a silver lining, according to a new study: The same things that lead to less-than-adult behavior may also help adolescents learn better and faster than their elders.

“Adolescents are notorious for engaging in reward-seeking behaviors, a tendency attributed to heightened activity in the brain’s reward systems during adolescence,” Harvard University psychologist Juliet Davidow and her colleagues from Columbia University and the University of California–Los Angeles write today in Neuron. Although examples of teenage risk-taking are usually framed as a cautionary tales, neuroscientists suspect there’s an upside—namely, that taking risks promotes learning and exploration, even as it raises the chance of misadventure.

To test that idea, Davidow and her colleagues asked 41 kids aged 13 to 17 and 31 young adults aged 20 to 30 to play a learning game while inside an fMRI brain-scanning machine. At each turn, participants had to guess whether a butterfly would land on a red or white flower. Once they made their choices, they were told whether their choices were correct or incorrect. The task, therefore, was to learn how likely the butterfly was to land on each flower, then predict as best one could which flower the butterfly would land on next.

Taking risks promotes learning and exploration, even as it raises the chance of misadventure.

Teens, Davidow and her team found, mastered the butterfly game a bit faster than adults—that is, their predictions improved faster than young adults’—apparently because they were less quick to solidify their beliefs about the butterfly’s habits. Participants also had better memories for a series of images they saw after correct choices as opposed to incorrect choices, and that effect was stronger in teens than young adults.

The fMRI results further suggested that teens’ brains operated somewhat differently than young adults’. While the striatum, a brain region associated with prediction-based learning, was active in both teens and adults, teens’ brains also made use of the hippocampus, a part of the brain that helps consolidate memories (among many other things).

Apart from demonstrating teens are quicker studies than adults, at least in simple learning games, the results also suggest new insights into adolescent behavior.

“Our results imply that, as adolescents navigate through new life experiences, learning from reinforcement is linked to how episodic memories are shaped and to the extent to which they are biased toward encoding more of the good than the bad,” the team writes. “This feature of learning is important to consider in relation to decision making because it speaks to the sorts of biases that adolescents may encounter when they draw on prior experience to inform current decisions.”