Ep 103: How Risk-Taking is Hardwired in Adolescent Brains

Episode Summary

Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers, authors of the new book Wildhood (and bestseller Zoobiquity), explain the four needs of every adolescent as they transition to healthy adults. Plus, the surprising biology behind teen risk-taking behavior, particularly in groups!

Show NotesWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Watching teens gobble down five plates of food, grow six inches in one night and flock in groups to the mall as they attempt to attract “mates” really makes you think…teens aren’t so different from wild animals! And just like wild animals, our teenagers are up against quite a bit as they begin setting out on their own in the world. They’ll need to know how to protect themselves from danger, how to socialize with others, how to develop effective sexul communication, and how to provide for themselves as they become independent adults.

We can’t protect our teens from the force of nature forever…so how can we prepare them to master the art of survival? Amazingly, there’s a lot we can learn about priming out teens for adult life from studying the patterns of adolescent wild animals. Whether it’s uncovering connections between the ways animals and humans both learn to avoid danger, or finding similarities in reproductive patterns across species, our guests today are here to shine light on how wild animals can teach us all about teenage behavior.

My conversation today is with Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers. They’ve been researching animal science together for the past ten years—and they’re also both mothers of young adults. Investigating the behaviors of wild animals while simultaneously wrangling teens at home caused them to identify similarities between teen adolescence and animal adolescence. Their book, Wildhood: The Astounding Connections Between Human and Animal Adolescents, discusses how we can use research on animals to help our teens grow up safe, confident, and independent.

The key according to Barbara and Kathryn is getting your adolescents’ four main needs met.

How Teens Learn to “Sense” Danger

When it comes to talking about safety, you as a parent may know the difficulty of drawing boundaries for your child. You want to shelter them from danger, but you don’t want to overdo it, leaving them totally helpless when they enter adult life.

Kathryn and  Barabara elaborate on this idea by explaining how it plays out among fish,  specifically salmon. Salmon that are raised in the wild are much more equipped to defend themselves against predators than those who are sheltered and raised in captivity. Wild salmon naturally form a network with others, creating a “school.” By using safety in numbers, they’re able to defend themselves against predators. 

Those raised in captivity, however, are unable to form those connections to other fish, and are simply unaware of the danger of predators. When they were released into the wild, they are immediately snatched up by predatory fish–so much so that the predators often wait by where  captive fish are released, ready to pounce as soon as one swims by!

Barbara and Kathryn warn that while of course it’s a good idea to protect your child as they grow up, it’s not always the healthiest to shelter them too much. In the episode, we talk all about how you can walk this line–keeping kids safe while also ensuring that they are aware of how intimidating real life can be. 

Teenagers are Stressed about Status

Another similarity between creatures in the wild and the teens in our homes is that both tend to have a preoccupation with status…that is, they want to fit in with the flock, sometimes even become the leaders of the pack! As a parent, you might struggle with guiding your teen through their sudden obsession with popularity and the opinions of their peers. 

The best explanation for why your teen is consumed by the idea of status is because, like wild animals, their brain is in survival mode. In the animal kingdom, status is deeply linked to who gets the access to the most resources, mates, and protection. That’s why status is so important to teens; as their survival instincts are developing, so is their need for a high status.

This is why they can become so distraught when it feels like they don’t fit in. When someone leaves a mean comment on their instagram page, it doesn’t just hurt a little, it causes a disruption to their brain’s perception of their chances of survival.

In the episode, Kathryn and Barbara emphasize how  important it is that we be gentle with teenagers as they navigate the social order of teenagerhood. Although hurt feelings may seem insignificant or small, there’s a lot more to it than you might think. We talk in depth about how to approach a teenager who’s feeling a sudden loss in status, and how to remind them that it’s not life or death, even if it may feel that way. 

Pushing Teens Out of the Nest

After we help our teens learn how to move through the world safely and survive the ups and downs of status,  it’s time for us to step back and let them figure it all out on their own…right? We don’t want them to be overly coddled, living at home until they’re thirty! 

We hope that kids will be able to adapt and develop the skills to get by without us. That’s why we can sometimes be bothered by the possibility that teens will stick around longer than we might expect.

You might be familiar with the image of a young bird being pushed out of its nest by its mother, so it can spread its wings and learn to fly. It’s often used as an analogy for parents pressuring young adults to learn to make it on their own, in order to keep them from becoming too reliant on having parents to take care of them. 

However, Barbara and Kathryn are here to tell you that in several different species of birds, older offspring stick around to help parents take care of the younger ones. In some cases, birds leave the nest of their parents for a period and experience independence, but come back for what’s called “extended parental care.” 

Although it may feel unnatural or uncomfortable for teens to take a little bit longer to leave the nest, humans are not the only species that exhibits this behavior. It’s totally normal for young adults to take a little extra time to figure things out. 

In the episode, we chat about how every teen, just like every species, is different. When it comes to watching teens grow and change, there is no normal! What Barbara and Kathryn want to remind us is that the animal kingdom is full of diversity and variation, and so are our teens. No one teenager is going to be the same, and there’s no script for how to be the perfect parent.

In the Episode…

In addition to these topics, Kathryn, Barbara and I discuss all kinds of ways studying the animal kingdom can help us contextualize the struggles our own teenagers are facing. By looking at animal science as a basis for human behavior, we can find ways to to start conversations about important things like sexual communication, maturity, social adjustment, etc. We cover:

  • Why teens of all species are bad at assessing risk…and what to do mitigate it
  • The importance of near-misses
  • Why teens are drawn to horror films and pornography 
  • How hard-wired adolescent behaviors are controlling your teen

I was fascinated to read and hear from these two animal experts on how parents can use the cross-species similarities to raise teens. I’m doubly excited to share their insights with you! Happy listening and don’t forget to leave a review!

Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1. Create a Status Sanctuary

As Barbara and Kathryn discuss, since teens are usually at the bottom of hierarchies (with more experienced adults at the top making rules), their brains are primed to climb the status ladder. Because of this, adolescents are constantly stressed about status. If your teen has ever acted like losing a friend or getting in a fight with a friend is “life or death,” according to Barbara and Kathryn, for teen’s brains,  it truly feels that way.

To help relieve the constant spikes in anxiety due to status climbing, Kathryn and Barbara suggest creating a “status sanctuary” where teens can be free from constant comparison. It doesn’t have to be a spa-like experience, but it should ideally be done alone and sans technology. For your teen a status sanctuary might be something active, like going for a run or a hike. Or maybe they enjoy doing art, crafting, or baking. Encourage your teen to take a “status sanctuary” and offer to give them a room/space completely to themselves for one hour if needed. Remember, no looking at social media or scrolling through old text messages as both are social-status centered activities.

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: A good place usually, to jump in is, what led you to team up and to choose this topic, and to spend this immense amount of time writing this book?

Barbara: Yeah. Well, this is Barbara. And Kathryn and I have been working together for over 10 years, to explore what we can learn about human health and development from the natural world. And particularly, from other species. From animals, and especially, from wild animals.

Barbara: So, I’m a cardiologist and a psychiatrist. And Kathryn is an animal behaviorist. And our first book was called Zoobiquity, and we looked at, across the animal kingdom, at cancer and heart disease. And eating disorders, and anxiety. And we learned a lot. And during that period of time, we also happened to be both raising adolescents, or they were coming into adolescence, and so we ended up turning the lens that we developed to study all these medical problems and psychiatric problems. We turned it to teenage life. And that’s how Wildhood was born.

Kathryn: This is Kathryn. And yeah, what happened was, we had been working on these for 10 years and found ourselves with adolescent animals of our own, in each of our separate households. And we just-

Andy: Raising a herd of your own.

Kathryn: Yes, we just couldn’t help but apply our knowledge to what we saw out in the field. And we were up in Northern California, by the coast of Monterey, and we were looking out into the ocean. And we were with a biologist who was telling us about the area, which is full of great white sharks. And the sea mammals that live there have learned not to go into this area, that has all these sharks.

Kathryn: And he said, “Oh, except for, there is one animal that will go in there.” And we said, “What is that animal?” And he said, “Well, the teenage, the adolescent otters.” And Barbara and I looked at each other and we said, “Adolescent otters, that are taking risks, that their elders and their youngers don’t take? This, we have to look more closely at.”

Andy: It’s amazing how many parallels there are, and how much can inform our views on human adolescents. And in the book, it’s really done in a cool way. You guys follow four stories of different animals that are coming of age, or going through adolescence, in their own ways. And then, we learn different lessons about these four universal journeys, or missions, that are fundamental to adolescents throughout the planet.

Barbara: Yeah. It’s a book about human life. It’s trying to understand adolescents in our species, but we were turning to other animals, and there’s a lot of deep scientific research. But we also wanted to tell stories that were based on reality, so what we did is, we found studies that had actually looked at adolescent animals and their journeys, using radio collar tracking and GPS.

Barbara: And, we were able to find these four stories, one that illustrates the first of four competencies that you have to have, to be a mature adult. So it turns out, whether you’re a penguin, or whether you’re a hyena, whether you’re a humpback whale or whether you’re a wolf. If you want to be a mature adult, you have got to number one, learn to be safe. That is, you need to protect yourself from predators.

Barbara: Number two, you need to learn about status, which means social hierarchies and social systems, and figuring out how to make friends and avoid enemies, and all that.

Andy: Okay. That sounds familiar.

Barbara: Number three, you’ve got to learn about, really it’s about sexual communication. So, it’s not just about how to have sex, because it turns out, if you put animals together sex itself, that part of it, the mechanics are relatively easy. It’s the courtship, the communication, it’s the understanding, the expressing, the winning over. All that takes a long time, and a lot of practice. So number three is, sex.

Barbara: And then, the fourth competency that we illustrated with these stories was, learning to be self-reliant. Literally, finding your own food, feeding yourself, so that you don’t go out in the world, and starve to death. Literally, if you’re one of these wild animals, but figuratively, if you go in the world and you’re not prepared to make a living, it’s a problem.

Barbara: So it was safety, status, sex, and self-reliance. And each of the animals in the book tells the story of one of those competencies.

Andy: Can you talk about what it means to be predator naive, versus predator aware?

Barbara: Yeah. So that’s a term that wildlife biologists use for adolescent animals, who haven’t had enough exposure to danger. And they do really dumb things. They do dumb things, and they sometimes suffer the consequences. And I mean, capital C, consequences.

Barbara: So, predator naive naivete is anything from, not recognizing a predator who’s hiding, who’s camouflaged. To going into an area that older, more experienced animals know is way too dangerous. You just don’t go there. Like the triangle of death, that Kathryn was talking about.

Barbara: But the flip side of that predator naivete is that, it drives a behavior called predator inspection. And it turns out, predator inspection is what takes you from being naive, to aware and safe. And so, what we found is that across… We’re talking about from bats to gazelle, to… Lots and lots of adolescent animals will move toward, and not away, from predators. And, they will. It seems insane. We have video of a bunch of species doing this. They do it together, the way a bunch of teens will do something when they’re together, that they might not do on their own.

Barbara: They literally, we have a video of a group of meerkats, adolescents, going toward a cobra. And smelling it, and looking at it. And, it’s insane. But it turns out these studies that have looked at predator inspection shows that, if a predator naive adolescent doesn’t get some experience with danger, they’re never going to be safe.

Kathryn: And it’s so interesting, because these near misses, these near misses that cause them to be safe even though they’re scary, as Barbara was saying, really do, provided they survive them, keep them safer later in life. But they sometimes have those near miss experiences, by themselves. But the learning experience is heightened, and even better, if they’re with a peer or a peer group. And so, sometimes we hear that human teens take more risks when they’re with their friends. They drive faster. Other animals do that too, and that leads us to hypothesize that this kind of behavior actually has the safety flip side, that it gives them the experience, the exposure that they need, to be safer as adults. We have lots of studies about this in the book. And one of them found that, not only being with peers and watching peers make mistakes can make an animal safer, but also, hanging around more experienced peers and having them sort of mentor the younger animal in what’s safe and what isn’t safe, that can also help.

Andy: Okay, I hear that. But isn’t getting together with friends and doing risky things, what we don’t want teenagers to do? Or is that, as long as they survive it, within reason, it’s good? Or, how do we draw the line or know, when it’s bad?

Barbara: Yeah, that’s exactly the question, obviously. And, what’s interesting about this research is that, we found these really paradoxical things, that we thought were at first, really head scratchers, and then the longer we sat with it and thought about it, the more I realized, “Well, wait a minute, maybe this is just, decodes everything.”

Barbara: So, yes. There’s no question that, we know that that peers can get human teenagers into a huge amount of trouble. The fact that kids are not allowed to drive with their friends in the car for the first, I don’t know, like six months or whatever it is, that’s directly related to the statistics that, it’s not safe. Now, why would that be? Well, it turns out when kids get together, they’re risk-taking. The threshold to take a risk is lower. And that’s based on this brain biology, right?

Barbara: But then, what is the evolution of this brain biology? Why is it that way? And one of the theories that we have is that predator inspection, actually, this really important learning about your predator behavior, is made safer when you do it with others. And so, it would make sense that there would be this biology, of risk-taking with peers.

Barbara: Now. So there’s this paradox that, gaining exposure to danger necessary to become safe. But on the other hand, when you’re exposed to danger, you’re exposing yourself to risk. So, that’s true, whether you’re a meerkat, and it’s true whether you’re a human. So, what is a parent supposed to do? What is a teenager supposed to do? One of the things that we learned is that, there’s no universal, every species playbook, but as a general principle, avoiding danger completely is a really bad move, from a safety perspective. And that may seem paradoxical, but it’s not.

Barbara: And, one of the things we learned about animals is that they gain exposure to danger in a safe way by… There is safety in numbers. They do observe parents, they do observe peers, but being isolated is actually one of the most dangerous things that happens. If you’re an isolated adolescent fish or bird or mammal, you won’t really learn, ever, to be safe.

Kathryn: It’s also interesting to think about what the modern human version of a predator is, since we don’t have eagles dropping from the sky, to carry us off. Or, most of the time, there aren’t lions waiting to jump us from behind. So, if you think about the things that are dangerous and that can kill human beings, we have diseases. And, we have wars and shootings and murders and those kinds of scary dangers.

Kathryn: And when you look at horror films, and games that people play, and books that people read and TV shows. A lot of the times, the ones that appeal to teens do have to do with, what we think is like a human literary predator inspection. Of allowing the reader, in the safety of her own bedroom or the privacy of their internet connection, to get up close to the things that are scary and dangerous, and that could kill them. Investigate them a little bit, learn about them, without actually exposing themselves to the risk. So there’s something there, I think, for teens to take away.

Andy: Yeah. So it’s not necessarily a bad thing to be spending a lot of time on Netflix, watching things that have teenagers in them and show, situations that they could get involved in?

Kathryn: Well, that was one of our head scratching moments, that Barbara and I had was, “Why are teens the audience for horror, and roller coasters and scary things like that?” And, adults seem to have, “outgrown” them. But, that could be that, just the brain biology and the socializing of an adolescent is more open to those scary things of inspecting the danger.

Andy: Mentally rehearsing survival situations…

Kathryn: Yeah. That’s nicely put. Mentally rehearsing.

Andy: You talk about salmon in a study, who are either exposed to predators, or not. And they look at the strategies that they adopt, in order to then get away from predators, when they’re re-introduced. And there’s a few different strategies that they use, and I was wondering if you think there are parallels, between those salmon strategies and anything in human adolescents?

Barbara: Well, yeah. That study, it’s… There’s, you go to a restaurant, and you order wild or farmed salmon, and you’re trying to, “Okay, which am I supposed to order? What’s the upside and downside?”

Andy: Why is one, twice as expensive, as the other one? Is it worth it?

Kathryn: Exactly. It’s a more experienced salmon.

Barbara: Yeah. This is, we don’t have the answer to that question, but it turns out there’s a big difference between being a farmed salmon, where you’re protected and really raised in a pen, where there are no predators. And being a wild, yet young, salmon, growing up. By the time they’re adolescents, by the time they’re smolts and they’re… By the way, there are all these cool terms for adolescent animals. We say that all animals in adolescents are in their wildhood, which is the name of the book, but there are… Like, smolts are adolescent salmon. And there’s this great word for an adolescent eel, called an elver.

Barbara: But in any event, when a wild salmon becomes an adolescent, they know the moves, they’re ocean smart. They’re sea smart, let’s say, and the ones that are farmed aren’t. They have to go into the sea for a period of time to, they’re going to get larger and larger. And the ones that are farmed, there was one study that, there was like a 95% predation rate because they were so naive. In fact, their predators would wait by the outlet for them to be released, because they were just, it was just completely ridiculous.

Andy: Feeding frenzy.

Barbara: Exactly. But the lessons that you learn from that, from the farm salmon versus the wild is that, again, experience is really important. And overprotection is just not the right way to be safe. It’s a short term gain for a long-term, big loss.

Kathryn: There’s an interesting lesson learned, about peer behavior too, from that study. Which is that salmon, you’ve seen them schooling, and fish schooling is a protective behavior, because there’s safety in numbers and they look bigger to a predator, and they’re harder to catch. But salmon are born with the instinct to school, but they need to literally practice with other fish, so that their bodies line up and they move their bodies closer together, and swim in the same direction. And if you raise a fish in a tank by itself, it never learns how to school. It’s like trying to clap with one hand. It needs the other fish around it, in order learn those physical skills.

Andy: Some of the things that need to be learned during adolescence are gestures and sounds that indicate status, and how to navigate their place within the group. So what were the lessons on that, that you guys saw, from other species?

Barbara: Yeah, it was interesting to think about anxiety, which is a really big issue with teenagers today. And there’s, do other animals have anxiety? And the answer is, yes. I feel pretty confident in saying that, and it’s not anthropomorphizing, it’s based on brain biology. So, what is human anxiety? What does it mean?

Barbara: So there’s fear, right? Where the brain is having an experience which is signaling, “Hey, you know what? There’s something really dangerous going on. Change what you’re doing.” And animals experience fear when there’s a predator nearby. Anxiety is a different neurobiology, which has to do with being in a social group. And, what’s going on with your status.

Barbara: And status is kind of a, think of it as, not such a nice word. It’s cars and clothes, and it’s not… But it actually is the word that’s used, in animal behavior, and it has to do with being a social animal, living in a hierarchy. And all social animals do, including us. When our status goes up, our brain chemistry changes. When our status goes down, it changes in a different way, but it changes. And the same thing is true, we found in our research, in fish and birds and other mammals.

Barbara: So what does all that mean? It means that you can look at the brain biology of a fish and the brain biology of a human, and if a fish loses status, their serotonin systems are altered. Their behavior is altered. And, the same thing happens with humans. And what we mean by losing status as a teenager, is anything from not being invited to a party, being humiliated online, bombing a series of tests, a test that you cared about. It can be a lot of different things. And, if you ask someone, “What does that feel like?” A kid is going to say, “It feels like, it feels awful. It feels horrible.”

Barbara: That, those words. It feels awful, it feels horrible. Those are human words you use to describe a universal experience of losing status, across vertebrate species, fish and birds and other mammals. So, what we found was that status, it really affects mood. I have to say that, when my kids were adolescents or, they’re in their early twenties now, they’d be bummed out about things here or there, but it was before we’d written this book. And, I didn’t really think about status, per se. I didn’t really think to ask them about, “What?” I just wasn’t part of what, I was saying, “How do you feel?” Not things like, “Well, what’s going on with popularity?” And that sort of stuff.

Barbara: But we found that, actually, status is so important for survival in animal groups. Animals who have higher status, they… Gosh, they have more food. They have more protection, they have more opportunities to mate with others. So, falling in status is the opposite. So, that’s really, we think the evolutionary reason that it feels so good, to rise in status and so awful to fall in status.

Kathryn: It also gives some insight into social media, and why social media can be so powerfully exciting, but also can make you feel so bad, if you’re on it for too long. Not only are you sort of getting the feel good, and then feel bad, brain biology hits from your actual social group, but you’re also, many social media platforms are false. They’re way, way bigger than you would normally have, there are people you don’t even know on there. There’s celebrities, who are professional risers in the social status. And you’re kind of always put down, if you’re comparing yourself to a celebrity. So connecting these social hierarchical systems in animals, to our feelings and moods in humans, we feel is a really powerful part of our book.

About Barbara Natterson Horowitz

Barbara Natterson Horowitz, M.D., develops bio-inspired strategies for understanding and addressing human health challenges. In addition to co-authoring Wildhood and the New York Times bestseller Zoobiquity, she is a professor with faculty appointments in the UCLA Division of Cardiology, Harvard Medical School and Harvard University’s Department of Human Evolutionary Biology. She also co-directs the UCLA Evolutionary Medicine Program and its graduate degree program. 

Studying a diverse range of animals in natural settings Dr. Horowitz’s most recent research focuses on species-wide patterns in development across critical transitional periods of life including the adolescent to adult transition.

Zoobiquity, which makes the case for a species-spanning approach to health, was a Smithsonian Top Book of 2012, Discover Magazine Best Book of 2012, and the China Times Best Book  of 2012. It has been translated into seven languages and has been the common read at universities across the country. In 2018, she first offered Coming of Age on Planet Earth, a course which uses a comparative and evolutionary frame to better understand the transition from adolescent to adult life across species. The course materials would be echoed in her next book Wildhood

In September 2019, Dr. Barbara keynoted the Nobel Assembly’s Nobel Conference in Stockholm, Sweden. The theme of the 2019 conference was the identification and application of scientific insights from the natural world to human health. 

About Kathryn Bowers

Kathryn Bowers is an applied animal behaviorist and science writer who has taught courses at UCLA and Harvard. In addition to co-authoring Wildhood and the New York Times bestseller Zoobiquity, Kathryn is a Future Tense fellow at New America in Washington, DC and has been a staff editor at the Atlantic and a writer/producer for CNN-International in London. 

Kathryn also served as an assistant press attaché at the United States Embassy in Moscow in the late-1990s, and received a State Department Meritorious Honor Award for her service.
With the success of Zoobiquity, Kathryn and Barbara’s partnership sparked the Zoobiquity Conferences, which in September, 2019 were the focus of a special symposium at the Nobel Committee Conference at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

Want More Wildhood?

Discover more on the Wildhood website, Facebook, and Instagram. Find Kathryn on Twitter or Barbara on Twitter.