Study: Teen Brain Wired for Pleasure

Teen mice drank too much,

ate too much, and made poor choices in a study at Temple University.

Famous adolescence researcher, Laurence Steinberg’s team point out that the same reason mice behaved badly in this study, is the reason that teens make risky choices.

It is all about pleasure! Here is why and what we can do to help them from 10-25 years old.

 The Enlarged Pleasure Center

In a recent article in the New Yorker, The Terrible Teens, Elizabeth Kolbert explains, that Steinberg’s team spiked adult and teen mice water with alcohol. The results: “those who were alone drank roughly the same amount as adult males. But adolescent males with cage mates went on a bender; they spent, on average, twice as much time drinking as solo boy mice and about thirty per cent more time than solo girls.

The reason the mice and teens behave this way is because of pleasure and rewards. The pleasure center of the brain is completely developed but the rational command center of the brain is not. The brain believes the rewards of the activity are far greater than they really are.

 Pleasure Seeking

Laurence Steinberg has shown that the pleasure center reaches its peak size during adolescence and then begins to shrink. This enlargement of the pleasure center occurs at the same time as increased dopamine receptor production. The result is a highly strengthened sensitivity to pleasure. Steinberg explains, “Nothing—whether it’s being with your friends, having sex, licking an ice-cream cone, zipping along in a convertible on a warm summer evening, hearing your favorite music—will ever feel as good as it did when you were a teenager.” [you can read more in Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence -Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ]

Pleasure is Worth the Risk

What does this mean? It means that while an adult will look at the rewards of risky sex and think better, late adolescents will turn to Tinder and swipe right. This is because, in Steinberg’s theory, the risks are worth it. This can include dangerous car stunts, jumping from balcony to balcony, or dangerous drinking games.

Peers Increase Pressure and Pleasure

What adds to the problem is the audience. Remember the mice above who drank more in a crowded cage? MRI studies show that being watched by friends activates teens’ reward centers. Steinberg believes that this makes teens seek out still more rewards. The results: things like a case race; trying to down a whole case of beer before their friends.

Steinberg writes, “In fact, the recklessness-enhancing effect of being around peers is strongest when adolescents actually know there is a high probability of something bad happening.”

Add Social Networking Enhance Pleasure

I imagine that posting the epic fail to youtube and face book results in even greater rewards when hundreds of people “like” it!

Now there is an extra reward for the adolescent brain that is already seeking ego affirmation. This will get the dopamine receptors doing a happy dance!

 Policing Pleasure

If the pursuit of pleasure is the highest motivation making the death rate of 15-19 year olds double that of 1-4 year old in America, it makes sense that parents and law makers protect teens. Teens won’t like it but we know that the highest amount of driving fatalities happen under the age of 18. Why not do something about it?!

I believe Steinberg gets it right when he says, “If we were genuinely concerned about improving adolescents’ health, raising the driving age would be the single most important policy change we could make,” Steinberg writes. He is pushing for  a minimum age of eighteen.

 Parents and Pleasure

Parents don’t like being labelled a kill-joy. Teen’s sometimes accuse us of purposely robbing them of the will to live. Standing between a teen and what pleases them is sadly necessary when their brains play up the reward and down play the risks. Legislation helps us out by not letting us turn over the keys to the mini van at 12. It is somewhat helpful by setting a drinking age but it doesn’t rule out sex by same age teens and it can’t track what the teen who thinks it’s fun to jump off a roof into a pool.

When it comes down to it we are going to be the bad guy. We can tell stories of teen pregnancy, horrifying car crashes, and high school failures to help instill some sense. We will also have to create boundaries regardless of how much they convince us that they are responsible.

 Not Done Yet

Many teens feel completely mature by the time that they are 16. There brain is sharper and memory keener than their 50 year old parents. What they lack is a completely developed command center at the front of their head. They also lack life experience. (watching Breaking Bad is not life experience.) Their handicap is that in the world of rewards and punishments their brain tells them that the rewards far outweigh the risks.

For a time they will not appreciate us standing in the way of a drinking binge in Daytona beach at 17. They may cringe when we demand study time or set a curfew. That is okay. Do it anyway. And if you have to, make the consequences of disobeying outweigh the pleasure of defiance. According to Steinberg’s study it may be the only way to change behavior..

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Ron Powell


Ron Powell is the Adviser to the Director of the Youth Ministry Institute at Vanguard College. He has been involved in youth ministry for over 30 years. He continues to volunteer, write, teach, and speak to parents, leaders and teens. If you would like to contact him you can email