Could the brain actually be responsible for teenagers “acting out”?

By Sarai Ballesteros [original research by Qu, Galvan, Fuligni, Lieberman, & Telzer, 2015]

Would you ever go to a highway with your friends in two separate cars and purposely drive towards each other at full speed until one of you swerves out of the way? Neither would I. However, there are teenagers that actually do this for fun. It’s a game widely known as “chicken.” It is risky behaviors, such as these that have intrigued scientists for centuries. At last, scientists are finally finding reasons for these puzzling behaviors.

Yang Qu and colleagues searched for a biological basis for adolescent’s uniquely risky behaviors. In their paper entitled “Longitudinal Changes in Prefrontal Cortex Activation Underlie Declines in Adolescent Risk Taking” (2015), researchers found evidence that points to underdevelopment in specific brain regions in adolescents that play major roles in decision-making.

In this study, there were a total of 21 participants. All underwent testing at two different points in their lives, about one and a half years apart. The average age of the participants during the first round of testing was about 16 years old. At the second point, the average age was about 17 years old. Each participant was tested on different components to track their degrees and frequency of risky behaviors.

The first component of this study was a survey first created in 1991 named the Youth Self-Report. This questionnaire asks participants how often they smoke, drink alcohol, use drugs, and steal. At the end, the report gives the participant a score from 0-30 from least risky to most risky.

The second component was a task named the Balloon Analog Risk Task, or BART. In this task, participants were put in a Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine (fMRI) and presented with a relatively simple task. They were shown a computer screen that had a red balloon. They were given the choice of either pumping the balloon with air or not. By pumping the balloon, they were running the risk of having the balloon explode in hopes of earning $0.25 with each successful pump. At any point, they also had the option to choose the safe option and cash out and keep all of their winnings. However, if the balloon exploded before they cashed out, they lost everything. With each pump, the chances of the balloon exploding increased exponentially, thus increasing the risk. The test measured how many pumps each participant employed before cashing out or popping the balloon.


By monitoring participants in an fMRI machine while they completed this task, researchers were able to see the affects of risk on the brain. In whole-brain analyses, they were able to see increased activation in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC) as well as in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC). These two particular areas are known to be related to the brain’s cognitive control and reward systems. Over time, the study found that activation in the VLPFC significantly decreased when making risky decisions on the BART.

Overall, this study does not definitely point to immaturity in adolescents’ brains directly leading to risky behaviors. However, this is a good start to what will likely be a long road to understanding the teenage brain.

You are all creative because neuroscience says so

By Henri Skinner

What comes to mind when you hear the word creative?

Growing up, children learn to express themselves through fairytale stories, finger paint crafts, and circle time dedicated for asking unusual questions. Everything they are told to be is NEW and ACCESSIBLE.

No child has ever doubted their ability to think new thoughts.

The sad reality is that as people grow older they are less likely to define themselves as creative. This in part may be because of the professions they fall into that aren’t labelled as creative. Creativity becomes a mystical gift that only some lucky people have inherited and keep locked up in art museums and music halls. Whatever the cause, neuroscience argues that creativity is greater than careers, but that it is an integral part of our physiology, of ourselves!

A common way to describe creativity is the ability to produce work that is both novel and appropriate.

Neuroscientists use this definition in order to ask questions such as
“Is there such a thing as creative an non-creative people?”
“What about creative and non creative tasks?”

PSA on creativity research

Let’s get real folks. Creativity has a bit of a branding problem in the realm of a laboratory setting. The main problem is the fact that testing for creativity usually involved testing a pool of “creative people” and “non-creative people” as a control. These distinctions are usually decided by the career choices of people which IS SO BAD. It implies that,

1. There are certain careers that do not necessitate creative thought
2. People are holistically defined by their careers

The research I will focus on instead use “creative” and “non-creative” tasks in order to create a basis for comparison. Cool? Cool. Here we go.

Background Information

The brain is split up into four different sections called “lobes” that all have their own purposes. The temporal. occipital, and parietal lobe all are key in memory and perception. They are the lobes that compile all kinds of sensory information such as your sight, your experiences, your sense of hearing, etc. They are basically the data source for your frontal lobe.

Your frontal lobe is basically the boss of higher cognitive thinking. It takes all the information from the other three lobes and integrates them into complex processing like emotional thoughts, decision making, and creativity. Because of this unique job of the frontal lobe, the rest of the information I’ll be sharing will be about specific experiments on it’s activity.

Screen Shot 2017-05-29 at 7.15.44 PM.pngTesting the Frontal Lobe

sweet so we have the tool! now how do we use it?

Image from Thirteen of Clubs

Anna Abraham discusses how hard it could be to contextualize creativity and along with conclusions made by neuroscientists Kroger and Rutter, created tests that highlight creativities definition of producing information that is both “unusual” and “appropriate”

Screen Shot 2017-05-28 at 6.29.53 AM.png

Their fMRI studies on “conceptual expansion” found that there were specific places in the brain that were the most active when trying to complete creative tasks. These area regions are the inferior frontal context, the temporopolar cortex and the frontopolar cortex (FPC). Neat! We found them! What is even more neat is that these ares of the brain are NOT just exclusive to creative thought. In Abraham’s paper she quotes that “the lateral FPC is not specifically limited to semantic aspects of information processing” and that “both this brain region and the anterior IFG are sensitive to the degree of associate strength between concepts with greater brain activity elicited by wider semantic distance.” AKA, these creative processes are defined as choosing and using the right kind of knowledge in our brain databases in order to create new ideas. The results of these different research avenues show activity in these brain regions is not limited to the “artist” but are actually a part of everyday thinking.


Abraham restates that there is no “qualitative distinctiveness” between creative and normative aspects of cognition in the brain. In a greater understanding, we cannot truly put creativity in a special box for special people, but understand it as a mechanism integral to any profession, any person. So the next time someone tells you they simply aren’t creative, you can argue that if they have functioning brain, they have every capacity to be creative.

Cited Sources

Abraham, Anna. “Creative Thinking as Orchestrated by Semantic Processing vs. Cognitive Control Brain Networks.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 8 (2014): 95. PMC. Web. 27 May 2017.

Kröger, S., Rutter, B., Stark, R., Windmann, S., Hermann, C., and Abraham, A. (2012). Using a shoe as a plant pot: neural correlates of passive conceptual expansion. Brain Res. 1430, 52–61. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2011.10.031

Rutter, B., Kröger, S., Stark, R., Schweckendiek, J., Windmann, S., Hermann, C., et al. (2012b). Can clouds dance? Neural correlates of passive conceptual expansion using a metaphor processing task: implications for creative cognition. Brain Cogn. 78, 114–122. doi: 10.1016/j.bandc.2011.11.002

Rutter, B., Kröger, S., Hill, H., Windmann, S., Hermann, C., and Abraham, A. (2012a). Can clouds dance? Part 2, An ERP investigation of passive conceptual expansion. Brain Cogn. 80, 301–310. doi: 10.1016/j.bandc.2012.08.003

Kröger, S., Rutter, B., Stark, R., Windmann, S., Hermann, C., and Abraham, A. (2012). Using a shoe as a plant pot: neural correlates of passive conceptual expansion. Brain Res. 1430, 52–61. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2011.10.031

Featured Image from DrOONeil