“Teenagers scare the living s*** outta me”, you screamed as you danced around your room. Your parents probably didn’t understand you and your obsession with Dashboard Confessional way back then. But if you were ever an emo kid, we’ve got some good news for you.
Study reveals adults who identify as an ’emo kid’ have better capacity for reinforcement learning
A study published in Neuron gave 31 adults and 41 teenagers a memory task whilst scanning their brain activity. What they were testing for was the participants’ capacity for ‘reinforcement learning’.
According to the University of Alberta, reinforcement learning is “learning what to do – how to map situations to actions – so as to maximise a numerical reward signal.” In plain English, it’s the ability to make a guess, and use the outcome of that guess to better inform your guesses in the future.
They tested this by showing the participants a series of objects paired with one another, and then asked them to remember which images had been shown together.
The study shows the teenagers faring better on these tasks than the adults. Brain scans showed more activity in the teen brains, especially in the hippocampus and the striatum. These two areas of the brain are respectively associated with memory and decision making.
Overall, the teens’ brains showed an increased level of connectivity between the two areas of as compared to the adults in the experiment.
The study authors concluded that the adolescent period of impulsive-decision-making may be beneficial for reinforcement learning. But what does this all mean?
Study author Daphna Shohamy, cognitive neuroscientist at Columbia University, spoke to Refinery29 about the results.
“The major takeaway is that teens are better at learning from feedback than adults, and that they engage different parts of the brain when they learn.” Dr. Shohamy suggests that this different way of remembering may be due to a teenager’s heightened sensitivity to rewards and feedback.
“Teens are better at learning from experience,” says Dr. Shohamy. “It is possible that they are impulsive because that propels them to seek learning opportunities that will help shape their understanding of the world.”
So, whether it was looking for your new favourite band, or trying out things you probably shouldn’t have (like alcohol or drugs), your teenage impulsive life choices could have actually been good for you. Being impulsive, intense, and craving reward or feedback from your peers meant that you developed some great memory and learning skills.
Tell that to your mum next time she complains about you blasting Taking Back Sunday too loud.
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