Brain Health,
Sci + Society,

#198: Wisdom and Risky Teens with Dr. Dan Romer

September 15, 2017

Teens are the Rodney Dangerfield of age categories.

They get no respect.

(This is especially true if you ask teens themselves.)

Their erratic, moody, risk-taking behavior is so widely recognized that in some sense, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  What kid hasn’t heard — long before he or she hits 13 years old — that “teenagers are different” or “the teen years are going to be hard, and sometimes you’re going to feel like the whole world is against you or you’re going crazy”?

By the time most kids are barely tweens, the specter of teenager-dom is floating on their conceptual horizon like a weird holiday that they don’t really understand — but they know is going to be a big deal.

Talkin’ bout my generation

There’s never been a time in human history when teenagers’ “impudent, exasperating ways” haven’t been recognized.  What has changed, more recently, is the way that society accounts for it through the lens of science. In the mid-twentieth century when hematology was entering its heyday, we started hearing that teenagers have “raging hormones.”  The phrase stuck.  (How often do you hear the word raging when it is not followed by hormones?)

As neuroscience has made it easier to peer into the brain, we’ve learned about a loss of neurons and brain connectivity that takes place throughout adolescence.  White matter in the teenage brain is less than that of adults, while the neuron-count is less than younger children.  All the while the behaviorists’ measure of dangerous behavior is ticking up…  And it doesn’t help that bean-counting insurance adjusters remind us that no other age group is so susceptible to death by accidents.

All in all, it paints an awkward picture of the teen brain.  Just as growth spurts leave arms and legs gangly, voices crack and pimples erupt, and teenage eyes gain the ability to roll with more contempt than they could ever express before…the same tectonic pinball must be going on in the brain.  Right?  It jibes with experience, jibes with the neuroscience, and who is really going to stand up for the teens, anyway?  Certainly no one who has ever met one.  🙂

Dr. Dan Romer, Teen Avenger

Dr. Daniel Romer is not himself a teen.  He is however, someone both personally and professionally on the side of teens.  And he believes the consensus view of the bungled-up, risk-prone teenage brain having back-slid into a demonstrably worse state than in younger children doesn’t add up.

As the director of the Adolescent Communication Institute at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennslyvania, he has dug into the research on exactly what types of risk teenagers are more likely to say “yes” to… And by more carefully classifying risks, a more nuanced picture emerges.  Only certain types of risk are less aversive to teens than younger and older age groups.

In particular, teens seem to have less fear of the unknown.

And this might be exactly what the (evolutionary) doctor ordered.  Adolescent risk-seeking could be a form of neurological “finishing school” — a period of behavioral plasticity similar to the period of linguistic plasticity enjoyed by babies and young children (which famously makes language-learning so easy at that age).

Want help in making sense of a brooding teen?  Want to re-frame your own teenage misadventures in a more positive light?  Check out Dr. Romer in Episode #198 and give the teenage brain a second look.  No eye-rolling, please.

Read Full Transcript
Show Notes
  • 00:00:24

    Episode introduction: Wisdom and Risky Teens with Dr. Romer.

  • 00:02:12

    This Week In Neuroscience.

  • 00:04:20

    5-Star review shout-outs.

  • 00:05:05

    Smart Drug Smarts news and updates.

  • 00:07:19

    Guest introduction: Dr. Dan Romer.

  • 00:08:37

    Interview begins.

  • 00:09:19

    Interpretations of the brain's pruning process and decline in grey matter that takes place during adolescence.

  • 00:10:40

    What does it mean to be a risk-taker?

  • 00:13:00

    The teenage brain as evolutionarily adaptive.

  • 00:14:30

    Risky behavior and sense of self.

  • 00:15:50

    Dr. Romer's research.

  • 00:17:00

    Sensation thinking and testing this in the lab.

  • 00:18:40

    Adolescents as willing to explore.

  • 00:19:15

    Being impulsive as well as insensitive to risks.

  • 00:20:20

    Cognitive control, adolescent drug use, and impulse control disorders.

  • 00:23:20

    Cognitive control networks in the brain.

  • 00:24:30

    Experience and wisdom.

  • 00:26:45

    Teenage brains as evolutionarily maladaptive.

  • 00:27:14

    The stigma of adolescence.

  • 00:29:00

    Authoritative parenting.

  • 00:32:35

    Drug testing in high schools.

  • 00:37:19

    Interview wrap-up.

  • 00:38:40

    Ruthless Listener Retention Gimmick: Teenage roundworms.

  • 00:41:40

    Episode wrap-up.

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