The balloon inflates, growing fatter and fatter. Soon, the inevitable is going to happen. The mom pumping the balloon can almost hear the stretch of latex, almost hear the pop that must be moments away. But if she pumps this virtual balloon on a computer screen just a couple more times and it doesn’t pop, she’ll earn more points. C’mon, balloon!
Then: Popped. Burst. Deflated. Points and all. She’s back to zero. That’s the risk she took when continuing to press the inflate button on the stupid computer balloon. The mom grimaces in frustration.
But the game isn’t over. Another balloon appears on the screen, ready to be blown up. So she starts again on additional round of the Balloon Analog Risk Task (BART), which is not a video game but a research tool used by neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists to assess a person’s proclivity for risk. The mom is playing the balloon test as part of a personal quest to find out: What happened to my mojo?
In her pre-mom years, Kayt Sukel was a fearless explorer, taking risks from skydiving to shark diving. Even in her early days of motherhood, she continued exploring, carrying her infant son across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East while her husband was deployed in Iraq. After she and her husband divorced and she returned to the United States, the alumna from Carnegie Mellon University, who majored in cognitive psychology, launched her career as an author with a headline-grabbing book about sex and science, titled This Is Your Brain on Sex (Simon & Schuster, 2013). The Washington Post praised the book as a “serious, informative and highly entertaining survey of the neurobiology of sexual attraction.”
Before long, all that excitement deflated. Time was filled with unsexy activities, like paying the mortgage on a suburban house, watching reruns on Saturday nights, and ferrying her son to tae kwon do. She didn’t even feel a desire to travel abroad or leap into outdoor adventures anymore. “All of a sudden, I completely lost my mojo,” she says. “Given that I thought that being a risk-taker had been sort of a large part of my success in life, I thought, you know, I really want to figure out what is going on with this whole risk-taking thing.”
Sukel, ever curious about the brain, thought a lot about what was going on in her head. Had she lost her risk-inclined identity? How does the human brain process risk-taking on a biological level, anyway? Is risk a good thing or a bad thing? Given her academic background from CMU—known for being a world leader in fields from robotics to theater and now home of the BrainHub, which coordinates interdisciplinary research in biology, cognitive psychology, computer science, statistics, and engineering on humanity’s most important organ—it’s not surprising that the 1995 graduate was curious about the inner workings of the brain.
Sukel dedicated two years to examining risk-taking, culminating in her newest book, released this month: The Art of Risk: The New Science of Courage, Caution & Chance (National Geographic, 2016). The book juxtaposes recent neuroscience and cognitive psychology research on risk-taking with tales from daredevils she interviewed—the elite rock climbers and professional poker players of the world.
For those of us who’ve never attempted advanced stunts or gambled for high stakes, The Art of Risk also includes stories of ordinary risk—like considering a job offer in a new city or deciding whether to accept a proposal to remarry—as well as advice on how to handle risk in your own life. Sukel defines risk as “a decision or behavior that has a significant probability of resulting in a negative outcome,” and she emphasizes that everyone takes small risks multiple times a day when deciding, say, what to grab for breakfast or what to buy at the drugstore. “Life is inherently risky,” she writes.
Neurobiologist Sandra Kuhlman, an expert on how young and old brains adjust to new situations, calls the concept of Sukel’s new book “really interesting.” She isn’t surprised that the author feels she’s getting too settled in her comfort zone as she ages. An assistant professor of biological sciences and a faculty member with CMU’s BrainHub, Kuhlman says there is plenty of biologic evidence indicating that the brain’s modus operandi changes over time, affecting risk-taking and other behaviors.
Decision-making areas of the brain are composed of roughly 80% excitatory cells and 20% inhibitory cells, she explains. In young brains, excitatory cells are primarily active while inhibitory cells, or “traffic cops” as she calls them, are taking siestas for a couple decades, allowing lots of learning and potentially risky behavior to take place. “The inhibitory cells—the traffic cop cells—they don’t fully come online until after adolescence,” she says, adding that adolescence doesn’t stop with the end of the “teen” years but lasts through the traditional college years. Once the traffic cops do come online, they can dampen excitatory activity and even impede learning, but they also allow the brain to more effectively filter information and control behavior.
Scientists have only begun to closely study inhibitory cells during the past decade, Kuhlman notes. Because there are fewer such cells in the brain and old neuroscience tools were too rudimentary, it was difficult to pinpoint them. New genetic and imaging technologies have enabled Kuhlman and other scientists to take a better look at the traffic cops.
In a 2013 Nature paper, Kuhlman and colleagues reported that inhibitory cells only fire half as often during heightened periods of learning, challenging an old theory that inhibitory cells increase their activity as they mature to foster optimal learning. Kuhlman’s work indicated that kids without many active inhibitory cells have an advantage when it comes to learning, like rapidly picking up new languages. But adults can learn, too, though their brain cells need to adjust to enable deep learning.
If you don’t have the traffic cops, you’re more likely to pick up new rules, and it’s sort of easier to learn when you’re young. Right? You’re more apt to mimic the environment, and you’re more apt to copy what is going on in the environment,” she says. “But once these traffic cops are there, the rules are laid down, and you don’t reroute the excitatory traffic as easily. So you’re less apt to pick up a new rule, although you certainly can. It’s just not as frequent, and it has to be a really important rule. You have to really focus to change. It’s an active process once the inhibitory circuitry has developed.”
Sukel devotes a section of The Art of Risk to the young brain, particularly the brain of the notoriously risky teenager. She points out research on sex hormones, the insula brain region, and how teens respond to “good idea/bad idea” questions. On the latter, she cites a study that found that it takes adolescents longer than adults to answer questions like, Is it a good or bad idea to eat a cockroach? The research suggests that teens typically have to think more because they have less experience and are more open to different possibilities, making them less likely to immediately say “bad.”
This questioning attitude is exactly what CMU professor Marlene Behrmann likes about college freshmen, and she works to encourage it. Behrmann, who is a member of the by-election-only National Academy of Sciences and one of the world’s foremost experts in the cognitive neuroscience of visual perception, regularly teaches a freshman seminar on how to be a savvy consumer of science research and the popular scientific press. “Students don’t know whether or not the information should be believed. Some of it seems so reasonable and interesting, but that information may not be true at all,” says Behrmann, the George A. and Helen Dunham Cowan Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience in the Department of Psychology. “The key skill is coming to the work with a skeptical stance and accumulating sufficient evidence that compels one to believe it. My goal, even with these freshmen, is to try and inculcate in them … a healthy skepticism.”
Skeptically reviewing scientific findings is also a skill that Behrmann cultivates among students she mentors in her laboratory. One of her former students—Sukel—worked on her undergraduate senior honors thesis in the lab, helping to run experiments yielding what Behrmann calls “provocative results” about how the brain interprets visual information. Previous theories suggested that people only paid attention to visual information based on where stuff is located in a landscape. The data, however, showed that people can pay attention to objects in an abstract way. People can glean visual information from objects regardless of where the objects are located.
Sukel received a prize for the work at Meeting of the Minds, CMU’s annual research symposium highlighting the best undergraduate research on campus. But she says the biggest takeaway from her lab experience was learning to analyze whether data actually answers the question(s) being asked. “She is the skeptical voice in my head every time I read a research study,” Sukel says of Behrmann. That skeptical voice has been critical in Sukel’s science writing career as she has written pieces for New Scientist, brain research publications for the Dana Foundation, and articles in national magazines like The Atlantic, not to mention her books.
“My goal, even with these freshmen, is to try and inculcate in them … a healthy skepticism.”
The mentor-mentee have kept in contact over the years, initially through postcards Sukel mailed from abroad and later via emails and occasional phone calls. “My strongest impression of Kayt, both as an undergraduate student and certainly in her current career, is of someone who is positively outspoken. Very spunky. She doesn’t shy away from the hard topics or the taboo topics,” says Behrmann. “And she’s willing to be a risk-taker herself.”
In Sukel’s quest to rediscover her spunk through the writing of The Art of Risk, she demonstrates that she has done a thorough, skeptical review of the scientific literature and offers a comprehensive look at risk-taking, exploring the effects of genes, gender, emotion, stress, and other factors. In one chapter, she even investigates the effect of unconscious brain activity.
Sukel cites a study conducted at CMU that looked at unconscious brain processing and how well people make decisions when they are distracted by unrelated activities. In the experiment, participants had their brains scanned while they evaluated cars, apartments, and other products. First, they learned about the product’s features like gas mileage and room sizes. Then they were asked to rate them. Some participants were asked to rate products immediately, whereas others were led into a distractor task, such as a simple number game, before being asked to rank the products.
The research team—led by CMU Associate Professor of Psychology J. David Creswell, who has received the American Psychological Association’s Award for Distinguished Early Career Scientific Contribution to Psychology for his research on how the mind and brain influence physical health and performance—found “something interesting,” Sukel writes in her book. She explains that “as the participants were doing all that learning, activity ramped up in both the prefrontal and visual cortices—areas [of the brain] that are important for both learning and decision-making. But those areas were then reactivated during the distractor task, even though they weren’t needed. This, the researchers argue, means that those regions were still unconsciously working on making a good decision even while the brain was busy doing something else. In fact, the more these areas were reactivated during the distractor task, the better the participants did on their ratings of different cars afterward. They were able to make better, smarter decisions than those who weren’t distracted.”
So the next time you’re thinking about taking a risk, it may be a good idea to sleep on it, or perhaps doodle on a page of an adult coloring book before deciding.
We have long known that unconscious periods, such as sleep, can be beneficial for facilitating our learning,” Creswell says.
In our work here, we extend this to show that even brief periods of unconscious processing can be beneficial for facilitating decision-making.”
Creswell’s work at CMU, as well as that of Behrmann and Kuhlman, builds on a storied history of psychology research at the university. This year, the Department of Psychology is celebrating its centennial and its accomplishments—including the faculty’s inventions of computer programs in the 1950s that demonstrated correspondence between human and computer data on cognitive tasks. That work led to the department becoming a global leader in the emerging field of cognitive psychology, which examines how people think.
These days, of course, the state of cognitive psychology research includes a plethora of computer programs, like the virtual balloon-popping BART tool for assessing a person’s proclivity for risk. By looking at activity in specific regions of their brains, researchers can predict, 70% of the time, participants’ decisions regarding the inflation of the virtual balloons.
After Sukel blew up and sometimes popped them, she writes in her book—with pride—her results showed she’s “just a hair more risk-seeking than average.” Maybe, she pines, she still has her mojo after all. And she challenges her readers to take risks as well, because the science shows that taking risks helps people, at any age, to learn.