“Think excitement, talk excitement, act out excitement, and you are bound to become an excited person. Life will take on a new nest, deeper interest and greater meaning. You can think, talk and act yourself into dullness or into monotony or into unhappiness. By the same process you can build up inspiration, excitement and surging depth of joy.”

Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking

Youths tend to be more sensational or reward seeking and crave for excitement.
But WHY?

According to the developmental neuroscience, the excitement seeking behaviour in youths are influenced by the changes in the two neurobiological systems.
1. The socio-emotional system (mostly developed by early adolescence), is localized in limbic and paralimbic areas of the brain. Some of the functions include: motivation, risk taking, sensation/reward/novelty seeking, long term memory, primacy of emotional expression.
2. The cognitive control system (developed by mid adolescence and mature only in early 20s), comprises the lateral prefrontal and parietal cortices, and those parts of the anterior cingulate cortex to which they are interconnected. Some of the functions include: decision making, prioritizing, reflecting, self-control, working memory, delaying gratification, coordinating thought & emotion.

The brain’s social-emotional system has this inclination towards high-intensity feelings like excitement, risk, novelty, rewarding experiences or stimulating experiences, especially in the presence of peers. Research has shown that the arousal of the socio-emotional system will start in early adolescent development, while the full maturation of the cognitive control system only occurs later. Thus the developmental gap between the 2 neurobiological systems contributes to the increase in vulnerability of youths towards risk taking.

Between age 15-19, one significant developmental change in youths is that they have greater emphasis on the potential positive aspects of any experience. During adolescence, the increase in neurotransmitters activities and more dopamine being released naturally leads to the drive for reward. The significant increase in oxytocin when combined with the dopamine would result in linking the crave for social connections to the crave for reward. This is because the abundance of oxytocin strengthen the youths desire and need to feel belonging or bonded with others. Being able to be liked or accepted by people is an achievement.

There is just a fine line between the 2 possible paths youths may end up with. As youths have this greater sense of seeking for social acceptance and higher rewards, they either choose the path of excitement or the path of recklessness.
– Youths fill themselves with excitement when they pursuit new social interactions and engagement in risk-taking or novelty seeking behaviours, especially when it is towards the quality of life they desire for. This is why youths will seek to take on activities which are more dangerous or challenging or activities that require creativity and imagination, so that they can enjoy the sense of purpose or achievement. This is why some youths will push themselves to discover new things and to see what they were capable of.
– Alternatively, youths who fill themselves with recklessness would turn to the impulse or quick fix of thrilling activities, where external factors could fulfil their needs temporarily. This become more concerning when the willingness to do risky acts is considered as a tactic to create or uphold their level of dominance in their social communities. In the presence of peers or under conditions of emotional arousal, the socio-emotional network becomes sufficiently activated to diminish the regulatory effectiveness of the cognitive control network. Thus the cognitive control network become weaker to impose regulatory control over impulsive and risky behaviour.

The issue here is not that youths do not understand the problem or do not know how to identify risky activities, in fact they do. Youths may be aware of the potential risks or negative consequences, but the powerful sense of being alive when they focus on the enjoyment of rewards is just far too attractive. At times, they overestimate the chances of something bad happening and put too much weight on the exciting potential benefits of their actions, thus making the risk seem worth it. They are more vulnerable to the influence of their similarly risk-prone peers. Thus the more effective focus should be on limiting opportunities for immature judgment that leads to harmful consequences.
– First possible focus, is to develop the ability to pause, so as to allow coordination between the cognitive control and socio-emotional networks. This helps to enhance the resistance to peer influence as there is greater cognitive control of the impulsive reward seeking behaviour.
– Second possible focus, is to turn peer pressure into peer support which will enable youths to encourage each other towards a more responsible decision making.
– Third possible focus, is to develop a self-concept based on ‘being’ instead of ‘having’, so that youths will be able to seek self-validation from within.
– Forth possible focus, is to engage the youths in activities where they are in the flow state. It is when the youths are fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.

So… let’s be conscious and choose the path of excitement!

1. Steinberg, L. (2008). A social neuroscience perspective on adolescent risk-taking. Developmental Review, 28(1), 78-106. doi:10.1016/j.dr.2007.08.002
2. Yoneda, T., Ames, M. E., & Leadbeater, B. J. (2019). Is there a positive side to sensation seeking? trajectories of sensation seeking and impulsivity may have unique outcomes in young adulthood. Journal of Adolescence, 73, 42-52. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2019.03.009
3. Steinberg, L., Albert, D., Cauffman, E., Banich, M., Graham, S., & Woolard, J. (2008). Age differences in sensation seeking and impulsivity as indexed by behavior and self-report: Evidence for a dual systems model. Developmental Psychology, 44(6), 1764-1778. doi:10.1037/a0012955
4. Armstrong, T. (2016). The power of the adolescent brain: strategies for teaching middle and high school students. Alexandria, VA: ASCD

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