A tragedy that seems like something out of a very sad movie, occurred this past weekend in Rome, Georgia. Teens playing a game of "chicken" with a train, ended in the death of one of them. As an Atlanta traumatic brain injury lawyer, I have studied the way the teen brain responds to risk. It is one of the worst tragedies possible to lose a child and to lose a child to a game that is bound to end in disaster must be extremely painful for the teen's family.
The teens in the Rome train tragedy were a group of five to six kids ... they dared one another to be the last to get up as a train approached and they were literally lying on the tracks. The teen that died at the scene waited too long to get up.
Brain research has shown that the teen age brain is not yet fully developed and that teens are willing to take greater risks than we do once we get older. This has to do with the way the adolescent brain is "wired." The teen brain is essentially wired to be "extra sensitive to reward signals when pay-off for a risk is higher than expected."
This is related to brain chemistry. So when teens are playing a game of chicken on a train track, when nothing happens that is harmful, their brains might respond more intensely to the fact that something turned out better than expected. This could well explain why teens take risks that are so dangerous.
In a recent study, cognitive neuroscientists focused on what is termed "prediction error." This measures the difference between what is expected to happen and what actually happens. Scientists measured brain reaction in different age groups from about 8 years old to 30 years old and using a mathematical model were able to MRI the brains of participants to see how risk and reward were functioning.
The study, published in Nature Neuroscience, showed that a certain part of the brain reacted differently in test subjects between the ages of 14 through 19. The hope is that these new insights might help parents in working with their kids to avoid dangerous risk-taking activities like drugs and alcohol. Channeling this age-group into more productive activities, such as sports, is a good way to guide teens to safer behaviors. It is also important that we inform and educate our teens about the way they might feel in a given situation and the fact that they might not assess the risks as well as they will later in life.