Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Neuroscience Behind Stupid Physics Tricks

I swear Buzz Skyline and I did not plan this, but immediately after I watched his post Stupid Physics Tricks (DO NOT DO THIS AT HOME) I found a new article in Nature that gives a better indication of why on Earth someone might try something like this.

Adolescents, teenagers, young adults, ungrateful ruffians, trouble makers, borderline insane people, our future, are sort of a species all their own. The transformation that we all undergo from pre-teen to teen can sometimes hit our parents and family members in the face like a fast moving truck. And coming out of the haze of teen-hood is like waking up from a morphine induced comma. We look back wondering why we ever did the things we did.

Stupid behavior on the part of teens is often credited to kids simply not feeling the impact of negative consequences, or receiving more intense stimulation from positive outcomes. Thus, they seem impervious to negative outcomes, oblivious to things that seem so outrageously not-worth-the-risk to the rest of us. But a new study shows that kids may actually experience an increased appreciation for positive responses, meaning they simply get way more enjoyment than adults out of getting on a merry-go-round powered by a motorcycle wheel.

The study, lead by Jessica Cohen at UCLA, placed teenagers in an NMR machine to watch their brain responses to some simple tests (there's your physics). They also tested younger kids and adults, for comparison. The participants had to answer a series of questions where they matched up similar visual images - some of the answers were predictable, while others were random. Either way, the participant earned real money for every answer they got right.

The study showed that teenagers have a higher mental response to positive outcomes than adults. So rather than being oblivious to negative responses, teenagers may simply feel more elation and mental stimulation when things go right. And, like any good addiction, that positive feedback may overwhelm the fear of negative outcomes.

Cohen had this to say in an article by AFP:

"Our research shows that when adolescents get a reward that they're not expecting, their brains are more responsive to that reward," Cohen said in a phone interview.

Previous research, among adult humans and monkeys, has found dopamine surges before an expected reward comes, she noted.

"Some researchers have put forward a theory that striatal regions are fully developed in adolescents but the pre-frontal regions, which put the brakes on, are not," Cohen explained.

"As a result, adolescents get the sensitivity to reward that adults get too. But adults can suppress it and think before they act, or act more responsibly sometimes, whereas teenagers tend not to be able to do this as well."

This information could be helpful in avoiding teen drug addiction and accidental death via stupid, adrenaline pumping stunts. On the flip side, it could also show that too much inhibition leads to a decrease in the positive feeling we get from a surprising outcome.

It also justifies a few other things. Like how even if your mom was right, and you did look ridiculous wearing that thrift-store neon green shirt with the asymmetric collar and all those necklaces and the weird hair things and that really blotchy eye make-up (because that's what the goth kids are doing and while you didn't quite want to be goth you also didn't want to dress like the girls on the dance team so you kind of met them half way but mostly end up just wearing that XXL hooded sweatshirt all the time), it would all have been worth it for the dopamine rush that would come from the slightest look of approval from some cute guy walking down the hall. Yup, that is how I'm going to justify my high school pictures from now on.

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