Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Hey there, it’s Sanjay. You know, we’re still hard at work on the upcoming season of Chasing Life. There’s a lot to talk about. It’s all about smart technology, cell phones and social media. Our reliance on that. What does that reliance really mean and how does it all impact our brains? What do we really know? Most importantly are very importantly, at least for me, how it’s impacting younger folks like my three teenage daughters. It’s a topic we discuss all the time. You know, it isn’t the first time we’ve covered young people on Chasing Life and specifically their developing brains. In fact, I’d like to share with you an episode from last year on the mysteries of the teenage brain. Adolescence is a hard time. We all know that. And that’s even without technology. Just think about how awkward and confused you sometimes felt as a teenager. It’s a time of big changes, but the most radical transformation is actually one that is unseen. And this episode, a look inside the changing teenage brain. Thanks for listening and thanks for your patience. I promise season six is going to be worth the wait.

Today, I woke up, turned off my alarm. And then I think for breakfast I had a banana and a sip of Gatorade. And then I walked to school.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


That’s Braden. He’s a 16 year old high school junior from Washington, D.C.

And when I got home, I took a two hour and up and postponed everything I was doing because I was so tired.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


We asked Braden to do something special for us. Give us a sneak peek into his teenage life over the course of a week.

So today’s Monday. I was supposed to go to swimming right after. My dad was going to pick me up right from school. But last minute, I decided I did not want to go because I did not know anyone there. Like I knew people there, I just didn’t like them. I really wanted to go up to Tenley Town to get Chic-Fil-A, but my friend, my senior friend wouldn’t drive me.

Tonight, I plan on staying up til one am, either pretending to do homework or being on FaceTime with my friends.

Today is Friday. It was my last day of the semester. For lunch, I walked down the street to get some pizza with my friend, we brought back like five energy drinks and traded a couple for people to drive us places in the future because we don’t have our license. One of our other friends having a party. So we went over to her house. I talked to a few seniors and like kind of socialized. It was like the end semester little party Friday night.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


I’ve got to tell you, it’s obviously been quite a while since I was Braden’s age, but I’m kind of living through this still right now, as a dad. I have three daughters. They are 16, 15 and 12. I’ve got to tell you, I’m not really sure whet I’m going to get moment-to-moment with them. But then again, I’m told that’s normal.

So I was at a party and I made the decision to have one of my friends drive me home. Though he had been drinking earlier in the night.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Okay, look, all my alarms are now going off, right? Danger. Danger. What on earth are you thinking?

I was thinking. Oh, yeah, it. It’s fine. He’s completely sober. He was driving his girlfriend as well. So he trust himself with his girlfriend, who he loves very much. I’ve gotten in a car with him before, and he’s a good driver. I understood the risks, but I did trust it. And he did drive me home. And I got home very safely. And I would have him drive me home again.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Look, I’m relieved that Braden made it home safely that night. But it’s frightening, right? It’s frightening to hear how he justified that risk. Why do teens behave the way that they do? What’s running through their minds when they make those sorts of decisions? I really do ask myself these questions every day. And even as a brain scientist, I really don’t understand. As a dad, I don’t really understand. But I do realize this. It is easy to forget what it’s like to be young and making the transition to adulthood. So I wanted to approach this with an open mind and genuine curiosity. Today we’re going to talk to a developmental psychologist about the changes that are going on in the adolescent brain, especially when it comes to decision making. Plus, Braden is going to come back and share his expertise on actually being a teenager. I know I have a lot to learn from both of them. I’m Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent. And it’s time to start chasing life.

This is a very important part of life. You know, the educational choices, the career choices, the school choices, all of these factors all intersect with risky decision making and with health.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


That’s Valerie Reyna. She’s a psychology professor at Cornell University. Much of her research focuses on the neuroscience of risky decision making, especially in teens.

In the past, we thought that there wasn’t as much change in the brain, but there is both gray matter change and white matter change.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


You see, the human brain reaches its full size around the age of 11 for girls and 14 for boys. But that doesn’t mean it’s fully baked yet, right? Critical parts of the brain aren’t fully developed until our mid to late twenties. Among the last parts of the brain to finish maturingn – the prefrontal cortex. Remember that. This is an area of the brain responsible for important tasks, like decision making, impulse control, judgment.

So all of that is changing both the anatomy, is changing the structural parts of the brain, but also the functional use of the brain is changing during this period.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


You know, when you describe the brain of an adult and a teenager, I as a neurosurgeon, I can tell if I’m looking at a sophisticated MRI scan of an adult versus a teenager. And I can tell if it’s an older adult even. But I’m looking at very basic things. But how about for you. If you were to look at good images of an adult brain and a teenage brain, how would they compare?

You’re right. There are some anatomical structural differences. And I think the important thing to keep in mind is the functional part of the brain. Like what is the brain doing? Because that real estate could be used in a lot of different ways. So how the brain is functioning to make decisions, what are the processes, how the brain is engaged in that, how it’s used is really, I think, the more important issue.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


There are these scans now which will give you some idea of the function, you know, the functional MRI scans or even scans that are looking at the amount of energy that is consumed by different parts of the brain to give you some idea of the function. Is there insights there? I mean, are teenagers using their brain’s real estate differently?

So one of the things about getting older is you can cut to the chase more in terms of information processing. You’ve had the experience and not just experience, but experience with insight. And once you can get the gist and cut to the chase, it is less effortful. You don’t have to rethink every decision from the bottom up each time with all the details. Because you’ve been to that movie before and you know how it ends.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


As the brain grows and new connections form between neurons, the adolescent brain also goes through a process of cleaning house, call it. It starts to consolidate and refine the information it has collected. Getting rid of the connections it no longer needs and reinforcing the important ones. We call this process pruning.

And this seems to be a sculpting as a result of experience. So losing parts of the brain would seem to be a bad thing. But what it is, is really a honing of the brain. Based on experience, what’s been useful. And, you know, when you act on the world and the world responds, your brain codes all that and it changes the nature of your brain.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


That’s the point. Our brains mature by learning from experiences. It’s all of that trial and error happening during the teenage years that help the brain identify the connections it needs to lose and the ones it needs to strengthen or create. But sometimes, again, those experiences are risky. So there’s the challenge. Teenagers have to decide if that risk is really worth it. So how do they do it? After the break, how teens weigh risk and reward. Plus, the big reveal. What I was like as a teen.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Welcome back to Chasing Life.

So I walk to school every single morning and there’s a huge ice patch in the middle of the sidewalk. I walked through it and I fell. It just looked cool. I don’t know, maybe I should crack it. Seems fun. And I was talking to my dad about it and he’s like, Oh, maybe next time you should walk through it.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Okay. So Braden’s father didn’t understand the appeal of this risk, and it’s a good example of how adult and teen brains work differently.

He got a little bit upset with me, but I did do it again [laughter]. I still do it [laughter]. And I actually did fall again, but…

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


I’m kind of with Braden’s dad on this one. But I also realize engaging in risky behavior is not just normal for teens. It’s necessary. You see, healthy risk taking helps teens learn, develop and shape their identity. But learning how to make good decisions and assessing and then navigating the risk involved takes time. And it takes practice. Teens do understand risk. It’s not that they don’t. It’s just that compared to adults, they’re sometimes more interested in the immediate rewards than the long term consequences.

I feel like I will do risky things, but I am consciously thinking about them. It’s not impulsive; it’s not immature on my part, I feel. I know what I’m getting myself into. Like, I’ve thought about it a lot and I choose to do these risky things. It’s not just me being dumb. It’s well thought out so that I can reduce the risk factor.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


See, I think this is fascinating. Braden is describing not just acting on impulse. He weighs the risks and rewards. He just does it differently than your average adult might. And on top of that, there’s something else. Social pressures which can hold more sway for teens.

So like, if I do something risky with my friends or with these people I’m not super close to, but then we become good friends. I don’t know. It helps me almost for progress in the social hierarchy. And I get to say to other people that I’ve done that risky thing, to be completely honest.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Braden’s describing something important here. He’s describing being in the middle of discovering and really creating himself. I remember when I was a teenager, it’s back in the 1980s, I also spent a lot of time just trying to figure out my place in the world. Think about that. My parents had immigrated from India. I was born in this small, very homogenous town in Michigan, and there was nobody else who really looked like me or had a name like mine or ate the foods that I ate. I was constantly questioning, Who am I? Where am I? How do I fit into all this? On top of that, I was kind of a nerdy kid. I got picked on a lot. And I’ll tell you, it was a pretty moody time for me. I think that’s what I remember the most. Just being moody all the time. I think that’s how people would have described me. Psychology professor Valerie Reyna says this formative period of cognitive development and self-discovery makes adolescents particularly susceptible to risky decisions. It’s especially true because teens tend to focus on individual facts and don’t always see the big picture.

When we did our intervention with young people, we gave an example about Russian roulette. Suppose I offered you $1,000,000 to play Russian roulette. You know, to put that gun up there and just click it once. Would you do it? Now most adults say, no [laughter]. And I said, well, there’s only one bullet and, you know, $1,000,000 is a lot of money. How about more money? How about $1,000,000,000? You know. Adults will say, Are you kidding? You know, the amount of money and the number of bullets is not the point. Young people will often say, well, that’s a lot of money [laughter], and that’s a small risk.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


As a general rule, do teens tend to under estimate risk?

It’s odd because they overestimate many of them because we give them health class, we’d point out the risks and they will overestimate, if you ask for the numerical probabilities and you make that an easier judgment, they’ll actually say they’re higher than they are and nevertheless engage in the risky behavior. Because if you almost metaphorically do the math, still it comes out, you know, in their favor and there’s pleasure and reward and involved. So it’s odd, you know, even though they overestimate if they had a more realistic view of the risks, they might engage in, even more risk taking.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Is that thrill seeking just, you know, the thrill experience of that, is that a greater motivating factor for a teenager than an adult? Is that part of what’s driving that as well?

Typically, yes. So thrill seeking, novelty seeking exploration, all of these things are tied together. The brain tends to react to them as rewards, especially so during adolescence.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Do these things just go hand in hand automatically? The teen brain and a propensity for higher risk behaviors?

They do. And young people are more rewards sensitive, meaning the pleasures of life are sweeter and more intense for them, so they’re more tempted then than older people would be by the same things. There’s also obviously social needs for belonging and that sort of thing too. And then this combines with developments in the brain that have to do with control, behavioral inhibition, holding yourself back, putting the brakes on behavior when you are tempted. And all of these things are going on in the brain in a social context, too. So these factors all combine to heighten risk taking, especially in late adolescence and early adulthood.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


So taking the Russian roulette example off the table for a second, just risk taking then as a as a general sort of thing, this idea that this is how we learn. This is part of how we evolve. Is it inherently a bad thing or might it be healthy?

Risk can be very positive and many great things, great innovations and strides for humanity and for individuals come from taking a risk. So risk can be very healthy and is a necessary part of life. You know, when we look at people, the astronauts that are going into space, I mean, they’re probably risk takers. They’re taking a very calculated risk and they’re trying to mitigate the risk. But probably the average person’s personality would not be conducive with going into a little tiny capsule into space. So, you know, we need our risk takers and they’re part of society. They help us all. But, you know, the key is to make healthy, risky choices as opposed to unhealthy ones.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


After speaking to Professor Reyna, I do feel like I have a better understanding of what’s going on in my teenage daughters minds. Teens are very busy with the important task of becoming adults. There are all sorts of changes going on in their bodies and their brains. No wonder they need to sleep and eat all the time. It takes a lot of energy to transform in this way. So I decided to ask Professor Reyna for some tips. Whether you’re a parent, a teen, or a recent teen, and how we can better understand and support each other during this transition. Tip number one – this is for the grown ups. Know your influence and use it.

When we look at the influences on young people, it may seem that they’re not paying attention to us, but parents have a huge influence on the trajectory of that young person’s life.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Tip two – don’t forget that teens are employing a totally different thought process. Adults may just need to help them think things through.

Young people are not thinking the way we’re thinking. So if we explain the facts to them and they come back with very logical reasons why engaging in this risky behavior that seems crazy to us is a good idea, we have to remember that they’re really considering the facts in a different way than we are. So I would encourage parents to try to not only just take their point of view, but explain your own point of view to them.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Tip three – this one’s for the teens. Try not to be too hard on your parents, please.

Most parents are trying to help, and they may not make sense to you either, because when people have different thought processes about risk, it’s as though they’re speaking different languages to each other. So I think from both perspectives, we have to give each other some slack on that. You know, have some empathy and sympathy for the other person. They may see it differently than you, but often, you know, they have your welfare at stake.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Tip four – the teen brain, as you’ve just learned, is hard wired for learning and discovery. So do take full advantage of this exciting stage of life.

I guess I would encourage people, don’t treat your youth as a waiting period. Do what you enjoy now. Do the things you dream of doing. Try to do them now. Some of them at least.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


And tip five. This one’s from Braden. He says parents need to give teens the freedom to explore.

Don’t be overbearing and make sure your kid can have different experiences that maybe you wouldn’t generally approve of. But making sure you raise them with the logic to be able to, like, interact and thrive and think things through even if they’re quote unquote risky. I think parents should kind of make an environment where kids feel comfortable talking about these things and normalizing it.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


For me, one of the hardest things about parenting is learning to let go. I fully admit it. Allowing my young adults and training to make their own decisions. But my wife and I want to also be there as their guardrails. You know, today’s episode really did give me a lot to think about, especially as we’re working away on the new season of the podcast. This season we decided to do something really different, something, frankly, that I have never done before.

This is my question. I have a question now.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Oh, my podcast.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Go ahead, I’ll allow it.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


That’s my conversation with my youngest daughter, Soleil. It’s coming up soon on the next season of Chasing Life.