MIND MATTERS: Would you swim in a tank with sharks? Ride your bike down a flight of stairs? Eat a cockroach? Your answers to these questions will probably change as you age. Associate professor of psychology Abigail Baird, herself a Vassar grad, class of 1991, and one of the college’s first biopsychology majors, has taken on the challenge of finding out why.
Baird has asked hundreds of teens these very questions, and analyzed both their verbal responses and brain activity while they were answering. Her findings have shed some light on how mature decision-making emerges. And there are some surprises. The popular assumption is that adults are more “rational,” that they avoid dangerous or risky behaviors because they have a more highly developed ability to reason. The corollary assumption is that adolescents are more “impulsive,” that they engage in dangerous behaviors because they don’t “think.”
But what Baird has discovered is that if you look at the brain activity of an adult who is asked to consider a dangerous behavior, the two brain structures that are most active are the amygdala and the insula—structures that generate emotions, in this case the “bad feeling” emotions associated with danger. The adolescent brain in the same situation registers more activity in the frontal cortex, the area of the brain associated with reasoning.
“We’re just starting to understand these differences,” says Baird. “There’s still a lot of work to be done.” But it looks as though what steers the adult toward appropriate behavioral choices is the result of real-world experiences that have “trained” those brain structures to generate a “bad feeling” in the face of danger. Without the benefit of that real-world experience, the adolescent brain relies instead on the “reasoning” part of the brain to make decisions that don’t require reason so much as gut-based reflexive action.
Shari Silver, now a first-year law student, worked closely with Baird on her studies of the adolescent brain. Silver says, “Over the course of three years, I really got to pour through the data. Together, we considered questions like ‘why are they more susceptible to risk taking, and to peer pressure?’” And in true Vassar style, they didn’t stop the questioning there. “We also challenged some pretty well-accepted assumptions. People think of peer pressure as a bad thing, but we considered the good side of it. It requires empathy and understanding, and those are good qualities.”
Looking back, Silver says she knew from the time she started college that she would major in psychology, but hadn’t predicted how involved she would become in Vassar’s renowned prison program. By the time she was a senior, she decided on law as the field where she could best use her expertise in both of these areas. “Professor Baird helped me make the most of my whole Vassar experience,” she says. “In her classroom, you could talk about ideas, even if they weren’t always fully developed. There was one day when class ran 30 minutes over, and nobody noticed. We had been so engrossed in talking and listening to each other.”
Silver is especially proud of a paper that she coauthored with Baird about relational ag-gression, which was published in the journal Social Neuroscience — and Baird is equally pleased to have had Silver’s input. “Most juniors and seniors here work on a first- and second-year grad school level,” says Baird. “Our students bring a freshness and an energy to the work. They not only help a lot of my work literally move forward, but they also keep my mind open and flexible through their unique and inquisitive perspectives.”
As a researcher and teacher, Baird is determined to give back to the college that made her “love learning.” Baird uses a boating analogy to describe her teaching style: “I feel like a rudder of a sailboat, and my students are not only the boat but the wind and the sail.” She may help to guide them, but avoids telling them what to do and especially what to think. “I love to pick at their curiosity,” she says. “More than at other colleges I’ve taught at, Vassar students ask all kinds of questions. They don’t just ask what will be on the test; they want to learn. To be part of a room full of Vassar students while they are learning is a true gift.”