Friday, November 21, 2008

Risk Taking, the Brain and Music??

Report: Janet Spring
Speculation: What Implications does Adolescent Risk Taking Have on Music Learning?

Steinberg, Laurence. (2007). Risk taking in adolescence: new perspectives from brain and behavioural science. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16 (2): 55 – 59.

Examination of records of police records on crime; drinking and drug abuse, car accidents, etc demonstrate that adolescents take more risks than children or adults. However, psychologists have spent many years trying to understand why this is true, yet they have not come up with concrete, viable answers. Studies have also proven that adolescents are not “irrational individuals” who do not care about the consequences of improper choices, but are as capable to think logically at the age of 15 as any adult. The author remarks that, “many researchers have posited that age differences in actual risk taking are due to differences in the information that adolescents and adults use when making decisions” (p. 55). New ways of looking at the situation have now suggested that adolescents can make informed decisions as well as their adult counterparts only when “the influence of psychosocial factors is minimized” (p. 56).

New advances in developmental neuroscience have found that more risky behaviour in adolescents is “the product of the interaction between two brain networks…the socioemotional network….. and the cognitive-control network” (p. 56). The former network is developed during adolescence with the onset of pubertal hormones and is involved in reward processing, which is stimulated by social and emotional factors. The part of the brain that is involved is in the limbic and paralimbic areas, which include the amygdale, ventral striatum, the orbitofrontal cortex, the medial prefrontal cortex, and superior temporal sulcus. The latter is part of the area of the brain that controls executive functions; the lateral prefrontal and parietal cortices which are connected to the anterior cingulated cortex. Steinberg discusses how these two networks interact in competition as the adolescent makes decisions where risk is involved. As the adolescent is involved in risk taking activities, they are looking for small immediate rewards that are emotionally satisfying. These reward stimuli are activated in the ventral striatum, orbitofrontal cortex, and the medial prefrontal cortex, which are “regions linked to the socioemotional network” (p. 57). Steinberg also has found that risk taking where immediate rewards are the outcome; occur more frequently when adolescents are with friends, than when they are alone.

Steinberg concludes that the cognitive-control system of adolescents is therefore utilized less than in adults and that “adults’ brains distribute its regulatory responsibilities across a wider network of linked components. This lack of cross-talk across brain regions” (p. 57) may account for the poorer judgment calls in adolescents as compared to adults. Adolescents are therefore more at risk during their teenage years for it is biologically and brain driven, a phenomenon that will improve over time and experience.

Reflection: Implications for Music Education

I am particularly interested in the occurrence of risk-taking in adolescents for I think that it has many implications for music education. The teenager is one who enjoys immediate rewards and is perhaps less likely to want to begin his or her studies on an instrument that may not produce immediate satisfaction. I relate this to the work of Lucy Green (2002) who examines how popular musicians learn through informal learning practices. Students study popular musicians outside of the school environment by imitating them, picking up skills by trial and error, mostly in a group setting. In this informal learning environment, are they more likely to take risks as they learn by imitation and by continued repetition and practice? Can this learning environment be more pleasing and immediately rewarding as compared to a formal music classroom setting? Are budding adolescent musicians more likely to enjoy this type of ‘musical groove’ due to the learning that is taking place in the regions that are linked to the socioemotional networks of the brain? A very interesting concept and speculation!

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