This is part 3 of a video series based on my book The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students.  You can watch the video, or if you’re more of a reader, I’ve included a transcript of the video below.  To see the entire 12-part video series I did on the adolescent brain, go to my You Tube channel. 

Video Transcript:

Hi, I’m Dr. Thomas Armstrong, and welcome to Video #3 in my Video Series based on my book The Power of the Adolescent Brain.  In this video we’re going to look at why the so-called bad behaviors of adolescents are still in the gene pool.

Let’s start by agreeing that many teenagers do a lot of crazy things:  they take drugs that are dangerous for them, they binge drink sometimes to the point of unconsciousness, they can drive unsafely on the highway, they often engage in unsafe sex, they may join violent gangs. Of course, not all teens do these things, but these activities do seem to be related to this unique stage of human development.  In Video #4 we’re going to look more deeply at these risks of adolescence, but in this video the focus will be on this question:

  • ‘’If these activities are so dangerous, and adolescents engage in them so much, why didn’t evolution and natural selection eliminate these behaviors from the gene pool long ago?’’

After all, if teens kill themselves doing something unsafe, they won’t be able to pass along their genes to the next generation.  The answer to this question is that while there are dangers to certain adolescent behaviors, they actually provided distinct evolutionary advantages to adolescents who were growing up in prehistoric times, times which cover over two hundred thousand years of development as homo sapiens and millions of years as primates.

Let’s look at risk-taking, something that adolescents are prone to engage in more than either children or adolescents.   In brain scans of teenagers playing a video game called Stoplight, participants raced an automobile to a finish line.  At each of 20 intersections they were presented with the option of pressing the STOP button or taking a risk by pressing the GO button and running a yellow or red light.  If they guessed right, there was no penalty, but if they were wrong, they crashed the car and had a long wait until the next game.  When told that same-age same-sex peers were watching them play this game, their risk-taking increased significantly compared to when they thought they were doing it without observers. Now what could be the value of taking these risks?

It turns out that nature endowed adolescents with risk-taking in order to get them out of the parental nest and into the wide world to start their own lives.  Here you have an adolescent who almost looks like he’s trapped with his back to the wall.  He needs to take a risk to get beyond his parents and his family cave and make his own way in life.  What would happen if nature had given him risk-averse genes?  Maybe we’d all still be living in cave!

Teens are big sensation seekers. They’re looking for big thrills from drugs for example.  And in fact, any prevention program that doesn’t acknowledge the desire of teenagers for thrills and chills, and doesn’t try to find something comparably sensational but not dangerous to get adolescents ‘’hooked’’ on (like experiential learning), will be doomed from the start. This thirst for visceral experiences in prehistoric times was advantageous because it drew adolescent out into the wide world of experiences that were waiting for them.It drew them into a world beyond the cave, so to speak, and into contact with other people, animals, plants, geography, in short, with lots of new experiences.

Teens prefer to spend time with their peers to being either with children or adults. In the video game I just referred to, we noted how adolescents took more risks when they believed they were being viewed by their peers.  Peer acceptance is incredibly important to teens and to be rejected by one’s peers can be devastating.  What could possibly be the advantage of this trait? Well, as it turns out, nature equipped adolescents to prefer their peers because it’s their peers that they’re going to be spending most of their time with in adulthood. They’re going to be hunting and gathering together, often under conditions of extreme duress, and so there’s a deep survival imperative going on there to facilitate intense bonding so there is harmony and cooperation between tribal members.

Implied in much of what we have already said is the fact that teens have a hunger for rewards.  They expect larger rewards than children do, and they’re willing to take big risks to get those rewards. Here’s an image of the famous Russian Roulette sequence in the Oscar winning film The Deer Hunter.  In one experiment conducted by scientists, people at different ages were asked if they’d be willing to play Russian Roulette if they received a million dollars as a reward.  None of the adults were willing to do it.  Half of the adolescents said they’d do it.  Big risks, but big rewards.  What’s could be the advantage of that trait?

In prehistoric times, this willingness to take big risks for big rewards was important key to survival.  It was important because it propelled adolescent hunters to courageously go out on a hunt seeking the big reward of food to feed their people, or to risk fighting other tribes for land or shelter or to engage in other risky but potentially rewarding activities.

Finally, we come to what should be an easy trait to figure advantages for, although it still seems to mystify some people, and that is why are adolescents so sexed crazed? Why do teens get involved in these intense Romeo and Juliet life-and-death romances (keep in mind that Romeo and Juliet were themselves young adolescents)?  The answer from an evolutionary point of view is that it served to connect teens with mates, with whom they could have sex, create babies, and pass their genes along.  In addition, this intense desire for a romantic partner served as a magnet for forming partnerships that could then engage in the project of raising children until they became independent.  In other words, until they became adolescents and started the cycle all over again.

Indigenous cultures have instinctively known about the evolutionary advantages we’ve just covered and have developed a diverse collection of rituals or rites of passage to help adolescents use these traits of risk-taking, reward-seeking, peer affiliation, sensation-seeking, and mate-seeking to help manage the transition from childhood to adulthood in such a way as to strengthen the tribal community.  In our contemporary culture, however, we lack those intricate rites of passage, and in many cases, adolescents are left to their own devices.  We’ll look at some of the problems and perils associated with the lack of contemporary cultural support for adolescents in our next video.  I’ll just leave you with the thought that one important place where we can engage teenagers in all those evolutionary traits is in school, by providing rewarding, sensational, and peer-related learning activities.

If you’d like to read about practical instructional strategies that will accomplish these aims, get my book The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students.

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About the author

I’m the author of 20 books including my latest, a novel called Childless, which you can order from Amazon.

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