For the last several decades we’ve been having a conversation about the link between problematic substance use and adolescents. More recently this conversation has increasingly been expanded to include harmful video game and technology use. There is an equally well-established dialogue between adolescents and their parents, schools, and society at large about the risks associated with these behaviors. Adults offer up knowledge and wisdom, carefully selected to help their adolescents understand the health, legal, spiritual, and relational consequence of their use. The adolescent then counters with a defense mechanism, be it rationalizing, avoidance, verbal aggression, or denial. This is the moment when the adults start to feel frustrated, worried, defeated, or confused. There is a miscommunication at play. A miscommunication that can be explained by diving deeper into the adolescent brain.
What video games, technology, and illicit substances have in common is that they all trigger the release of a neurotransmitter called dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is naturally occurring, and its release is also triggered by other rewarding stimuli, including food, exercise, money, and social connection. The amount of dopamine that gets released will vary depending on what the stimulus is (e.g. sugary foods cause more dopamine than a salad). Stimuli that cause a bigger spike in dopamine have a greater risk for problematic use (Kuhn & Wilson, 2005). The reason for this is a neural circuitry unit in the brain called the dopamine reward system.
The Dopamine Reward System
Dopamine is responsible for a specific aspect of the experience of pleasure – wanting (Kuhn & Wilson, 2005). It lets the brain know when an experience is desirable. Dopamine’s message is, “this is good, we want this to happen again”. The human brain developed a system for effectively processing dopamine messages – the dopamine reward system – to increase our chance of survival by motivating us to recreate experiences of pleasure, such as harvesting a nutritious food source (Shultz, 2010). Experiences associated with dopamine are recorded by our brain without any conscious effort thanks to the dopamine reward system. Experiences that trigger higher levels of dopamine are recorded as stronger memories, and lead to stronger urges to recreate that experience (McCauley et al., 2009). Dopamine is the neurochemical behind motivated behavior. The problem with dopamine is that it does not distinguish between long-term and short-term rewards. Efficiency is king in the human brain, and the dopamine system signals our executive functioning circuitry to seek out reward in the most efficient way possible (Hyman, Malenka, & Nestler, 2006). As such, we are more easily motivated towards short-term rewards than long-term ones.
The Adolescent Brain
Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to the effects of dopamine inducing experiences because their brains are already naturally rich in dopamine. During the adolescent years there is an increase in dopamine activity in the brain that begins in early adolescence and peaks midway through this developmental stage (Siegel, 2013). During this period adolescents are wired to feel an increased drive for reward. They become bored easily without consistent interactions with novel stimuli, they focus more on positive rewards than potential risks, their impulsivity increases, and they become hyperrational, focusing on facts and missing the bigger context (Siegel, 2013). All of this increases their susceptibility to developing maladaptive habits around technology, substance, and video game use.
The reason adolescents are defensive about their use of substances, technology, and video games is because their normal brain activity during this period has shifted their perspective to focus on the benefits of this behavior while ignoring possible consequences. Asking them to engage in a conversation about risks is an uphill battle that rarely ends in either side shifting their own perspective or understanding the other because their brain is effectively communicating a conflicting message. There is a strong likelihood that they are going to listen to their brain because, while they can hear your words, they can actually feel the truth being put forth by their brain. In order to effectively motivate adolescents towards healthier habits it is important to acknowledge, connect with, and then redirect their drive for reward. The wilderness therapy experience at True North can offer adolescents this type of support in a way traditional therapies cannot.
The True North Approach
Students at True North do not just talk about healthier habits, they actually experience them. Through interaction with outdoor adventure and living skills, their drive for novelty is met. Sometimes they become frustrated by the challenges of this environment because, unlike in the video game, technology, and substance-based worlds they inhabit at home, rewards in the wilderness often require sustained motivation. In these moments of frustration True North staff invite students to express their underlying emotions, help them identify the needs associated with these feelings, and then develop new tools for meeting these needs. True North students also create personal development goals oriented towards long-term growth and change. By working on outdoor living tasks and personal development goals, students learn how to channel their dopamine driven urges in healthier ways. Moreover, they have experiences that teach them what long-term rewards feel like. It is the difference between knowledge and wisdom. A True North student’s brain is more receptive to, and able to engage with conversations around healthy habits because it has a reference point for the pleasure associated with long-term rewards. As they come to understand the benefits of sustained motivation a student’s capacity for behavioral change increases, not because they were told what not to do, but because they learned a new way to feel good about themselves. The wilderness therapy model is a powerful agent in supporting and sustaining change with regard to addictive behaviors.
Hyman, S., Malenka, R. C., & Nestler, E. J. (2006). Neural mechanisms of addiction: The role of reward-related learning and memory. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 29, 565-98. doi: 10.1146/annnurev.neuro.29.051605.113009
Kuhn, C. M. & Wilson, W. A. (2005). How addiction hijacks our reward system. The Dana Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.dana.org/Cerebrum/Default.aspx?id=39147
McCauley, K., Clegg, J., Prevost, S., & Erickson, K. (2009). Pleasure unwoven: A personal journey about addiction [Video file]. Salt Lake City, UT: Institute for Addiction Study.
Schultz, W. (2010). Dopamine signals for reward value and risk: basic and recent data. Behavioral & Brain Functions, 624-32. doi:10.1186/1744-9081-6-24
Siegel, D. (2013). Brainstorm: The power and purpose of the teenage brain. New York, New York: Jeremery P. Tarcher/Penguin.