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Risk, adaptation and the functional teenage brain

Sercombe, Howard (2014) Risk, adaptation and the functional teenage brain. Brain and Cognition, 89. pp. 61-69. ISSN 0278-2626

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Over the last decade, the propensity for young people to take risks has been a particular focus of neuroscientific inquiries into human development. Taking population-level data about teenagers' involvement in drinking, smoking, dangerous driving and unprotected sex as indicative, a consensus has developed about the association between risk-taking and the temporal misalignment in the development of reward-seeking and executive regions of the brain. There are epistemological difficulties in this theory. Risk, the brain, and adolescence are different kinds of objects, and bringing them into the same frame for analysis is not unproblematic. In particular, risk is inextricably contextual and value-driven. The assessment of adolescent behaviour and decision-making as 'sub-optimal', and the implication that the developmental schedule of the teenage brain is dysfunctional, is also reassessed in terms of evolutionary development of the individual, the family and the human community. The paper proposes a view of adolescent development as adaptive, and a focus on young people's capacities in the profile of the needs of the community as a whole.