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Adolescent Brain Development and Risk Taking

Experiences teach the brain how to develop

Puberty kicks off an exciting period of brain and cognitive development that continues throughout the entire period of adolescence, and the changes are dramatic.

In puberty and early adolescence we think concretely. Most of us in this early period are unable to think abstractly or hypothetically. Our experiences teach us intuitive and analytic thinking and enable us, over time, to make decisions and use good judgment more consistently.

Some of the brain's functions continue to develop into the mid-twenties — including the brain's center for judgment and impulse control, which is one of the last regions to mature.

Environment matters to brain development. As we interact with our environment, our brains respond. It's not just that diet and exercise affect brain growth and function (they do): Relationships have an impact. Stress has an impact. Life experiences change the brain.

We learn by taking risks

Experiences strengthen certain neural pathways; others are lost through disuse. Repeated experiences strengthen neural circuitry. Throughout our lives, but particularly in childhood, we continually build new neural connections as we interact with our environments and learn new skills. In time, unused connections are "pruned" so that the brain can operate more efficiently.

Adolescents are "wired" to take risks. The emotional center of the brain (amygdala/limbic system) develops more quickly than the part of the brain responsible for impulse control and judgment (frontal cortex), and these two regions of the brain are not well-integrated in early or middle adolescence. Consequently, the anticipation of pleasure and other rewards tends to outweigh fear. Risk is likely to seem worthwhile to us if there's a chance of an exciting reward.

What's more, peer attention can increase risk. Psychologist Laurence Steinberg and others have demonstrated that as teens we are more likely to take risks when with our peers. This effect is not exactly a function of peer pressure; peers don't have to do anything other than watch, and a teen's risk taking increases. Rather, says Steinberg, "Peers have extremely high reward value in adolescence" [1].

But it's important to keep in mind that we develop through taking risks. Neurologically, adolescents are equipped to make decisions, but we need experience to strengthen, speed, and stabilize our ability to exercise control and make sound judgments. We take risks in part because we lack experience, and new experiences ignite learning. Risk taking is developmental — as long as we survive it. Adolescents need opportunities to take rewarding risks, and fail, safely: risks that further their interests and abilities, in environments and with people they enjoy.

Resources: Brain and Cognitive Development

Teens Can Have Excellent Executive Function — Just Not All the Time

Neuroscientist Beatriz Luna explains that adolescent judgment and cognitive control are inconsistent — but that this is a strength that leads teens to learn from new experiences. and Knowable Magazine.

Cognitive Development

This overview of adolescent cognitive development includes factors that impact how adolescents' brains develop, adolescent decision making, and how to support cognitive development. HHS Office of Population Affairs.

Brain Development in Teenagers

This brief video offers an entertaining look at the changes happening in the adolescent brain. Oxford University.

Why the Teenage Brain Has an Evolutionary Advantage

This 2017 video summarizes our understanding of brain development in adolescence. University of California.

The Developing Adolescent Brain

During adolescence, our brains are hungry for new experiences that will provide the skills and learning we need to thrive as adults. Center for the Developing Adolescent, UCLA.

The Science of Learning and Development

The research is clear: Strong relationships with educators help students develop the cognitive skills they need to learn and thrive. Edutopia.

Brain Architecture

Early experiences affect the development of brain architecture, which provides the foundation for all future learning, behavior, and health. Center on the Developing Child, Harvard.

Resources: Risk Taking

Teens and Risk Taking

Instead of conceptualizing all risk taking as negative, it is important to acknowledge its developmental purpose and provide opportunities for adolescents to take healthy risks that will help them learn, grow, and thrive. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

The Science Behind Adolescent Risk Taking and Exploration

It's not only normal for adolescents to take risks and try new things, it's an essential part of learning during these years. Recent research helps us understand why we're more likely to approach things that feel uncertain or scary during adolescence, and why these risks are so important to learning and development. UCLA Center for the Developing Adolescent.

Adolescent Risk-Takers: The Power of Peers

In this video, neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore explains the science of peer-influence, and a group of adolescents give their own perspective on the risky business of being a teenager. Nature.

Why Teens Take Risks

Many people have come to believe that adolescents take risks because their brains' executive function has not fully developed. In this article, researchers propose that it is not lack of control that underlies risk taking but lack of experience. Science Daily.

Adolescents and Risk: Helping Young People Make Better Choices

Drawing on the research of Valerie Reyna and colleagues, this article addresses the "immortality myth" and explores how adolescents actually consider risk. The article also offers suggestions for new intervention strategies. ACT for Youth.

Adolescent Risk Taking

Developed for community educators, this presentation may be used to provide information on adolescent development and risk taking to parents, youth workers, and other community sectors. The talk can be tailored to the target audience. Notes are included. ACT for Youth.


  1. Steinberg, L. (2013, February 8). A social neuroscience perspective on adolescent risk taking [Video].