11 March 2011

Risk and Reward

When a child is first born it is broadly speaking true to say that they know nothing.  While they enjoy the support and protection of their parents this is not a problem, but if they are to survive in the longer term, they need to learn fast, which is why we are all born with an innate sense of curiosity.

At this stage of life learning consists of experimenting, pushing boundaries, copying others and, above all, making mistakes.  Adults also play an important role in our learning by helping us differentiate between good behaviour and practices and bad ones.  For example, we quickly learn to recognise the meaning of the different sounds our mothers make when we on the one hand do something cute, or on the other use her favourite lipstick to draw on the wall.

As we grow bigger and more physically capable, this learning-by-doing approach brings increased risks, which is why parents will often keep toddlers on reins to stop them suddenly running into the road. 

At some stage though we need to be able to fend for ourselves, so we have to develop the ability to assess and judge a situation before acting.  This cognitive process takes place in the cerebral brain, which is the part of the brain that allows humans to over-ride our more basic animal instincts – to think before we act. Recent research at the University of Oregon has highlighted the ways in which the regions of the brain involved in making these reasoned judgements develop.  Their research study used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans of the brains of 24 girls and 12 boys when they were 10 years old and then again three years later when they were 13.

Their findings, which are detailed in the March 2011 edition of the journal Neuron, were that activity in an area of the prefrontal cortex increased significantly between the ages of 10 and 13.  So at just the time when parents are worrying that their children are coming under the influence of other people and being exposed to a broader range of risks, their brains are adapting to help them cope.

However, this raises the question as to why this region of the brain does not develop earlier, as I am sure that most parents would agree that even at 13 years children tend to take many more risks than they would like.  The most likely answer is that the inhibitions of youth are a key component in a child’s learning and that if they were restricted by a greater sense of risk aversion their learning would be impeded.  It is also likely that by developing this ability later in life and slowly over a period of time enables children to learn the skill of balancing risk and reward.

Possibly these research findings explain why some children switch from taking too many risks in their early childhood to being far too risk averse as teenagers.

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