Kashfia Rahman : How risk-taking changes a teenager’s brain
Have you ever tried to understand a teenager? It’s exhausting, right? You must be puzzled by the fact that some teens do well in school, lead clubs and teams and volunteer in their communities, but they eat Tide Pods for an online challenge, speed and text while driving, binge drink and experiment with illicit drugs. How can so many teens be so smart, skilled and responsible — and careless risk-takers at the same time?
When I was 16, while frequently observing my peers in person as well as on social media, I began to wonder why so many teens took such crazy risks. It seems like getting a certificate from DARE class in the fifth grade can’t stop them.
What was even more alarming to me was that the more they exposed themselves to these harmful risks, the easier it became for them to continue taking risks. Now this confused me, but it also made me incredibly curious. So, as someone with a name that literally means “to explore knowledge,” I started searching for a scientific explanation.
Now, it’s no secret that teens ages 13 to 18 are more prone to risk-taking than children or adults, but what makes them so daring? Do they suddenly become reckless, or is this just a natural phase that they’re going through? Well neuroscientists have already found evidence that the teen brain is still in the process of maturation — and that this makes them exceptionally poor at decision-making, causing them to fall prey to risky behaviors. But in that case, if the maturing brain is to blame, then why are teens more vulnerable than children, even though their brains are more developed than those of children? Also, not all teens in the world take risks at the same level. Are there some other underlying or unintentional causes driving them to risk-taking? Well, this is exactly what I decided to research.
So, I founded my research on the basis of a psychological process known as “habituation,” or simply what we refer to as “getting used to it.” Habituation explains how our brains adapt to some behaviors, like lying, with repeated exposures. And this concept inspired me to design a project to determine if the same principle could be applied to the relentless rise of risk-taking in teenagers. So I predicted that habituation to risk-taking may have the potential to change the already-vulnerable teenage brain by blunting or even eradicating the negative emotions associated with risk, like fear or guilt. I also thought because they would feel less fearful and guilty, this desensitization would lead them to even more risk-taking. In short, I wanted to conduct a research study to answer one big question: Why do teens keep making outrageous choices that are harmful to their health and well-being?
But there was one big obstacle in my way. To investigate this problem, I needed teenagers to experiment on, laboratories and devices to measure their brain activity, and teachers or professors to supervise me and guide me along the way. I needed resources. But, you see, I attended a high school in South Dakota with limited opportunity for scientific exploration. My school had athletics, band, choir, debate and other clubs, but there were no STEM programs or research mentors. And the notion of high schoolers doing research or participating in a science fair was completely foreign. Simply put, I didn’t exactly have the ingredients to make a chef-worthy dish.
And these obstacles were frustrating, but I was also a stubborn teenager. And as the daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants and one of just a handful of Muslim students in my high school in South Dakota, I often struggled to fit in. And I wanted to be someone with something to contribute to society, not just be deemed the scarf-wearing brown girl who was an anomaly in my homogenous hometown. I hoped that by doing this research, I could establish this and how valuable scientific exploration could be for kids like me who didn’t necessarily find their niche elsewhere.
So with limited research opportunities, inventiveness allowed me to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles. I became more creative in working with a variety of methodologies, materials and subjects. I transformed my unassuming school library into a laboratory and my peers into lab rats.
My enthusiastic geography teacher, who also happens to be my school’s football coach, ended up as my cheerleader, becoming my mentor to sign necessary paperwork. And when it became logistically impossible to use a laboratory electroencephalography, or EEG, which are those electrode devices used to measure emotional responses, I bought a portable EEG headset with my own money, instead of buying the new iPhone X that a lot of kids my age were saving up for.
So finally I started the research with 86 students, ages 13 to 18, from my high school. Using the computer cubicles in my school library, I had them complete a computerized decision-making simulation to measure their risk-taking behaviors comparable to ones in the real world, like alcohol use, drug use and gambling. Wearing the EEG headset, the students completed the test 12 times over three days to mimic repeated risk exposures. A control panel on the EEG headset measured their various emotional responses: like attention, interest, excitement, frustration, guilt, stress levels and relaxation. They also rated their emotions on well-validated emotion-measuring scales. This meant that I had measured the process of habituation and its effects on decision-making. And it took 29 days to complete this research. And with months of frantically drafting proposals, meticulously computing data in a caffeinated daze at 2am, I was able to finalize my results. And the results showed that habituation to risk-taking could actually change a teen’s brain by altering their emotional levels, causing greater risk-taking. The students’ emotions that were normally associated with risks, like fear, stress, guilt and nervousness, as well as attention, were high when they were first exposed to the risk simulator. This curbed their temptations and enforced self-control, which prevented them from taking more risks. However, the more they were exposed to the risks through the simulator, the less fearful, guilty and stressed they became. This caused a situation in which they were no longer able to feel the brain’s natural fear and caution instincts. And also, because they are teenagers and their brains are still underdeveloped, they became more interested and excited in thrill-seeking behaviors.
So what were the consequences? They lacked self-control for logical decision-making, took greater risks and made more harmful choices. So the developing brain alone isn’t to blame. The process of habituation also plays a key role in risk-taking and risk escalation. Although a teen’s willingness to seek risk is largely a result of the structural and functional changes associated with their developing brains, the dangerous part that my research was able to highlight was that a habituation to risks can actually physically change a teen’s brain and cause greater risk-taking. So it’s the combination of the immature teen brain and the impact of habituation that is like a perfect storm to create more damaging effects. And this research can help parents and the general public understand that teens aren’t just willfully ignoring warnings or simply defying parents by engaging in increasingly more dangerous behavior. The biggest hurdle they’re facing is their habituation to risks: all the physical, detectable and emotional functional changes that drive and control and influence their over-the-top risk-taking.
So yes, we need policies that provide safer environments and limit exposures to high risks, but we also need policies that reflect this insight. These results are a wake-up call for teens, too. It shows them that the natural and necessary fear and guilt that protect them from unsafe situations actually become numb when they repeatedly choose risky behaviors.
So with this hope to share my findings with fellow teenagers and scientists, I took my research to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, or ISEF, a culmination of over 1,800 students from 75 countries, regions and territories, who showcase their cutting-edge research and inventions. It’s like the Olympics of science fair.
There, I was able to present my research to experts in neuroscience and psychology and garner valuable feedback. But perhaps the most memorable moment of the week was when the booming speakers suddenly uttered my name during the awards ceremony. I was in such disbelief that I questioned myself: Was this just another “La La Land” blunder like at the Oscars?
Luckily, it wasn’t. I really had won first place in the category “Behavioral and Social Sciences.”
Needless to say, I was not only thrilled to have this recognition, but also the whole experience of science fair that validated my efforts keeps my curiosity alive and strengthens my creativity, perseverance and imagination. This still image of me experimenting in my school library may seem ordinary, but to me, it represents a sort of inspiration. It reminds me that this process taught me to take risks. And I know that might sound incredibly ironic. But I took risks realizing that unforeseen opportunities often come from risk-taking — not the hazardous, negative type that I studied, but the good ones, the positive risks.
The more risks I took, the more capable I felt of withstanding my unconventional circumstances, leading to more tolerance, resilience and patience for completing my project. And these lessons have led me to new ideas like: Is the opposite of negative risk-taking also true? Can positive risk-taking escalate with repeated exposures? Does positive action build positive brain functioning?
I think I just might have my next research idea.