Contrary to what used to be believed, we now know, through neurological research, that, during adolescence, the brain is still EXTREMELY PLASTIC (in this context, the word ‘plastic‘ means that the brain is susceptible to physical change in response to environmental factors. Click here to read one of my articles on brain plasticity and how childhood trauma can adversely affect the physical development of the brain). This makes the period of adolescence a time of particular vulnerability.
EMOTIONAL DYSREGULATION, IMPULSIVITY AND NEED FOR APPROVAL FROM PEERS:
Often, adolescence is a time of emotional dysregulation (difficulty in managing emotions). The adolescent can have dramatically fluctuating emotions, be moody, poor at making decisions, impulsive, sensation-seeking and a high risk-taker. Furthermore, approval from others is especially important during this period of life, so adolescents also tend to be very vulnerable to peer-pressure; this can make them even more likely to take risks (eg to impress friends).
THE PREFRONTAL CORTEX AND RISK TAKING :
The prefrontal cortex is a region of the brain that is involved in :
– decision making
– long-term planning
– impulse control
– delaying gratification
However, during adolescence, this brain region IS NOT YET FULLY DEVELOPED.
Above : Adolescence can be a time of high risk-taking. This has both neurological and evolutionary explanations.
This means that adolescents are especially likely to be HIGH RISK TAKERS. This is made even more likely due to the fact that the ‘REWARD CENTRE’ in the brain of adolescents is more active than it is in children and adults. This leads the adolescent to OVERESTIMATE THE REWARDS RISK TAKING WILL PRODUCE, further increasing the probability s/he will take risks (eg unprotected sex, excessive drinking, taking elicit and potentially harmful drugs, fast and dangerous driving etc).
ABOVE : Another example of high risk-taking behaviour amongst young people.
EVOLUTIONARY EXPLANATION OF ADOLESCENT PROPENSITY TOWARDS HIGH RISK-TAKING BEHAVIOUR :
It is likely that risk-taking behaviour evolved in adolescents amongst our ancestors in order to make the individual open to new experiences and situations, thus making it more likely that s/he will be willing to leave the relative safety of being cared for by parents and start to live independently.
LEGAL IMPLICATIONS :
It has been strongly argued by various parties representing the interests of young people that the lack of development of the prefrontal cortex in adolescents, together with other factors mentioned above, should be taken into account when trying to assess the extent of their culpability when they commit certain crimes. However, this conundrum is still far from being fully resolved.
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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)