Photograph by John Lund—Getty Images/Blend Images
By Hilary Brueck
December 2, 2015

Imagine you’re approaching an intersection when the light starts to turn yellow. Do you chance it and speed ahead or patiently wait for the light to turn green?

New research from the University of Turku, in Finland, suggests some young adults who push the pedal to the floor may be learning more from the experience than those who don’t.

In the study, the brains of young men (ages 18 and 19) were monitored in the lab as they traveled through a driving video game. Researchers found those who sped through the “light” in the game processed information faster and activated their brains more than those who played it safe.

But does this mean those savvy risk-takers will be smarter adults? Not quite.

Marisa Silveri is a neuroscientist who teaches psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, she says this Finnish study is a new, perhaps more positive twist on the risk-taking teen brain. Teenagers, developmentally prone to more risky behavior on their way out of the proverbial nest, have often been cited for risking binge drinking and crashing cars, too. But here, the researchers are seeing something else: risky behavior can also challenge and help develop the brain.

“It’s possible what the researchers are seeing is the brain getting better at weighing risks and outcomes,” says Silveri, who did not participate in the research, but studies changing teenage brains in her own lab.

As the teenage brain grows, more “white matter” forms, connecting different parts of the brain. This myelin tissue acts like insulation. Just like a well-built house is more efficient, when there’s more of the connective insulation wrapping around cells in the brain, impulse control sharpens. Interestingly, white matter in female brains isn’t tied to regulating impulsivity in the same way, however.

In this study, the “riskier” young men had much more white matter than their more cautious counterparts (London cabbies, who have to keep track of a dizzying maze of streets, are known to have a whole lot of myelin in their heads too).

“White matter can be the difference between a healthy and not healthy risk-taker,” Silveri says.

It’s still hard to know exactly how playing a video game in a lab room really translates to weighing those kinds of risks in real life. For that, researchers will need to do more long-term studies of the thinking, healthy brain anticipating real-world challenges.

But I’ll let you weigh the risks of that.

Check out GE CEO Jeff Immelt’s thoughts on risk-taking here:

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