Learning, Decision-Making, and the Adolescent Brain

Maximilian Scheuplein, Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford

Should I vote leave or remain? Can I still drive after having one beer? What outfit should I wear to the party? Every day we need to make decisions, and some are more risky than others. How we make decisions and take risks varies across our lifespan. Adolescence is a particularly unique developmental period in terms of how we learn and make decisions.

It’s vital to understand why and how people make risky decisions. Past research shows that the greatest threat to young people’s health and well-being in industrialised societies comes from preventable and often self-inflicted causes, such as smoking, binge drinking, drug use, sexual risk-taking, and violence (Steinberg, 2008). Neuroscience research can help to shed light on why young people tend to make more risky decisions, which in turn could have important implications for policies.

The decision-making framework

To explain such risky behaviour we have to understand the more general cognitive processes of decision-making. Our lab studies changes in the brain that affect decision-making and learning. We focus on adolescence as this is a period of life characterised by prolonged and significant changes in the brain, body and social environment. In fact it appears that the brain continues to develop into our early 20s.

The prefrontal cortex (i.e. the front part of our brain) is one of the latest developing brain regions as we grow up. This highly active brain area is made up of lots of subregions that have different connections to the rest of the brain. These brain regions all have distinct jobs and make different contributions to learning and decision-making (Noonan et al., 2017).

Studying patients with brain damage, such as through illness or injury, is one way to test theories of cognitive neuroscience. In 1848, an American railroad construction foreman called Phineas Gage had a particularly dramatic accident which saw an iron rod shoot up into his brain from above his eye. Surprisingly, Gage survived the accident but showed drastic changes in his personality and behaviour. Since this event, we have suspected that damage to the orbitofrontal cortex, a subregion of the prefrontal cortex, affects decision-making.

The orbitofrontal cortex is critical for goal-directed behaviour, such as:

Goal: Stop procrastinating.

Behaviour: Turn off reality television until the textbook chapter is finished.

It appears to be particularly important for two types of decision strategies:

1. Part of this brain region helps you learn the consequences of your actions (i.e. something a frustrated parent is often trying to reinforce to their children) — for example crossing the street without looking.

2. A different part of the orbitofrontal cortex is involved when making a choice between options that are similarly valuable — for example when you have to decide whether you want to go to Latitude Festival or the Isle of Wight Festival.

How do adolescents learn and make decisions?

In the Developmental Neuroscience Lab at the University of Oxford we study the development of these neurocognitive strategies to better understand learning and decision-making during adolescence.

From previous research with adults we learned that these strategies rely on specific areas of the brain that are underdeveloped and poorly connected in childhood but develop across adolescence. What that exactly means for adolescents, and how they make decisions, is currently unclear. We are trying to find out how the underdeveloped state of the prefrontal cortex in adolescence affects the adoption of decision strategies and distinct brain networks and how this might differ to adults. For that, we invite participants (aged 11 to 35) into the lab and get them to play simple decision-making games while lying in a MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scanner. This allows us to take some detailed pictures of their brains as well as to see which brain areas are working when making decisions. If you would like to learn more about our research or are keen to take part in brain science at Oxford please visit our website for more information.

These experiments will contribute to our knowledge about how adolescents learn and make decisions. Understanding how adolescents make decisions, especially risky decisions, can have important implications for policies. For example, some states in Canada specify that young drivers cannot carry more than one passenger other than an immediate family member or a qualified driver aged 25 or above, because research has shown that adolescents make more risky decisions when surrounded by their peers than when they are alone. Although many adult legal privileges start at the age of 18, brain research suggests that cognitive functions are still undergoing major reconstructions, which makes adolescence a particularly unique and fascinating period of life.

Further information:

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore TED Talk

Adriana Galvan TEDx Talk (on You Tube)


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