Ironically, the very thing that most parents hope for can turn out to be the very last thing that they want for their child. That is, most parents strive to raise a child who will, upon school graduation, get a job and move into his/her own place. But for this to happen the child must be ready to accept a certain amount of risk. After all, signing a lease does not guarantee that one will always be able to pay the rent. Especially in these uncertain times, the risk of losing one's position looms large in every employee's mind.
And so, researchers are learning that, by necessity, the adolescent brain is hardwired to be rather blasé about risky behavior. Teens, just because they have teenaged brains, can live quite happily with a lot of ambiguity. That's good when you want the kid to move out. Not so much when the kid sees nothing wrong with risking his/her life for the sake of, say, a quick high from a street drug or the thrill of unprotected sex with a dodgy stranger. There's the conundrum.
The teens in Melvin Burgess's book The Hit who are taking the drug Death (that promises certain death following seven days of unbridled stamina and euphoria) are likely able to accept what they genuinely see as a risk - rather than a certainty - for the thrill of the drug-induced high. In any case, as they may see it, their death will accomplish something. In the book it's seen as a defiance against what they perceive as a rigged system one that leaves millions in poverty while a select few horde all the money. Noted suicidologist Edwin Shneidman might have noted behavior similarities to a condition he termed"subintentioned death." That is, when a person (in this instance a teen) engages in a behavior that could very well lead to death.
Shneidman identified four types of subintentioned death: the "death-chancer" who, by definition, does things that could lead to death but chances that someone will rescue him; the "death-hastener" who lives life in a way that hastens death (dangerous lifestyle/drug use, etc); the "death-capitulator" who allows emotion or some psychological issue to cause death (such as someone who creates high anxiety or psychosomatic illness); and finally the "death-experimenter," who might not want to die, but lives in a chronic altered state.
Researchers are currently reevaluating many adolescent deaths that have been classified as suicides in light of Shneidman's work, as well as what they are learning about the physiology of the teen brain. According to Agnieszka Tymula, a postdoctoral student at New York University, adolescent "tolerance for unknown risks might stem from an underlying biological feature that makes learning about the unknown less unpleasant for adolescents than it is for adults." Principally due to a lack of life experience with risk, adolescents tend to make assessments using their rational pre-frontal cortex. This sounds odd, of course, as teens are most often thought to use their non-rational amygdala much more than their pre-frontal cortex. But with regards to risk, this is not the case. They will contemplate risky choices that adults just won't give any thought. And by focusing on the immediate odds of a risky situation at the expense of the big picture, they can act virtually oblivious to the outcome - blissfully ambiguous about consequences, for good or ill. As Tymula says, "this may be why the teen brain uses the higher-order cortex for risk decisions: it hasn't yet made enough of them to develop an intuitive reaction that it can 'offload' to other brain regions."
The very definition of naive. They can work out the details of selecting their college wardrobe. Just don't expect them to declare a major.
Image of teen brain from From The Teen Trenches.
Image of teenage mouse from artist L. J. Kopf, who can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is from the March 19, 2014 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.
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