Healthy risk-taking for “at-risk” individuals

By Kayt Sukel, science journalist, TEDMED 2014 speaker and guest blog contributor

How can we encourage individuals from “at-risk” populations to take healthy  risks, when we can’t even agree on what risk actually is?

To start, I think we need to make sure that individuals, public health systems, and educational systems are using the same vocabulary when they discuss these kinds of issues. The word “risk” is used in so many different ways—and we tend to talk about it in rather contradictory extremes. “Risk is bad. It will lead to poverty, danger, and death.” Or, “Risk is good. It’s the key ingredient for happiness and success.” The truth, as is often the case, resides somewhere in the middle. As I learned while researching The Art of Risk: The New Science of Courage, Caution & Chance, work in neuroscience shows, more and more, that risk is a key component to learning and skill building. Yet, people still tend to talk around risk. There has recently been a more conscious effort, in the psychological and epidemiological communities, to try to use the term “risk” less—especially when the parties mean “impulsivity,” “sensation seeking,” or some other manner of negative behavior.

We also need to acknowledge that there is risk in every decision one makes, every single day. While the science shows that risk is necessary for learning and growth, that doesn’t mean it’s comfortable or easy. Saying yes to everything is exhausting. Being judged for the risks you take, especially when it somehow gets linked back to the color of your skin, your socioeconomic background, or your gender, is infuriating. Educators and other stakeholders need to understand that, for at-risk populations, putting yourself out there can come at a significant cost. Sure, in the long term, it may not be as great a cost as not pursuing an important professional or personal goal. But we should acknowledge that risk, especially one that makes you vulnerable to criticism and ridicule, is a scary proposition. And, if there isn’t some sort of scaffolding there (in the form of good mentorship, for example) it can be hard for at-risk individuals to see what the long term benefit of risk-taking could be. It’s important that we collaborate, as a community, to make sure that scaffolding is there–for everyone–so we do have room to encourage healthy risks.

The good news is that already have the tools in our arsenal to encourage healthy risk-taking in all populations. We’ve had them for a long time. It’s as simple as providing safe arenas in the arts, sports, and sciences where students even as young as elementary age can learn how to question, to innovate, to fail, to engage, and to move forward.

I know, it may seem like I’m contradicting myself. Risky behavior in safe arenas? What does that even mean? To me, it’s a matter of giving individuals, all individuals, opportunities to test themselves in new ways. Giving them places to do it where the cost of failure is not too great to bear. Time and time again, we’ve seen that music, art, theatre, science clubs, sports, and other extracurricular activities all provide opportunities for individuals to try new things and really work at the edge of their performance ability. This teaches those students key lessons in emotional regulation, problem solving, teamwork, personal responsibility, and perseverance. If we can make these arenas more inclusive, it’s there that we can empower females (both cis and trans) and LGBTQ populations—as well as other at-risk populations—to better understand their own strengths and weaknesses and, ultimately, develop really healthy risk-taking skills. The kind of skills that transcend the school and playground—and help them become more successful in everyday life, no matter what kind of goals they decide to pursue.

Unfortunately, these are exactly the kinds of programs that we keep cutting, both inside and outside schools. If we continue along that vein, it will not only be to the detriment to at-risk populations, but to society as a whole.

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kaytJournalist and science writer Kayt Sukel shared insights into the neuroscience of risk-taking and how play during childhood and adulthood impacts the way we make decisions as adults in her 2014 TEDMED talk, Eliminating Penalties for Playing Out of Bounds. Check out her new book, The Art of Risk: The New Science of Courage, Caution and Chance.

The Rewards of Risk-Taking: Q&A with Kayt Sukel

On the TEDMED 2014 stage, Kayt Sukel, journalist and science writer, shared insights into the neuroscience of risk-taking and how play during childhood and adulthood impacts the way we make decisions as adults. We inquired for more on brains at play and her favorite TEDMED 2014 talks.

"Too often, we wrap ourselves up in our grown-up suits and avoid play at all costs. And that’s to our detriment—at work, at home and for our overall health." Kayt Sukel at TEDMED 2014
“Too often, we wrap ourselves up in our grown-up suits and avoid play at all costs. And that’s to our detriment—at work, at home and for our overall health.” Kayt Sukel at TEDMED 2014

What motivated you to speak at TEDMED?

I’ve found so much inspiration in many TEDMED talks—and learned quite a bit. As I’ve been working on my book about the science of risk-taking, there were so many things I learned that I wanted to share. I’m honored I got the opportunity to do so on the TEDMED platform.

Why does this talk matter now? What impact do you hope the talk will have?

More and more, Americans seem to live in a culture of cultivated busy-ness. We have so much to do that we forget to take time for ourselves. And while we understand that our kids need to play (and take risks as they do so) in order to learn and grow—many of us have forgotten how to play for ourselves. Too often, we wrap ourselves up in our grown-up suits and avoid play at all costs. And that’s to our detriment—at work, at home and for our overall health.

I hope that people will recognize that there is great value in play—not just for children but also for adults– and that they understand that taking risks in playful arenas is a great way to gain critical problem solving, cognitive and emotional regulation skills. I want them to understand that the things we do each day to cultivate health don’t have to be joyless and staid. So if the people who listen to my talk find some time to engage in some kind of play, push the envelope a little, and reap all those beautiful brain benefits, I’ll feel like I’ve done something important.

How can we incorporate play and risk-taking into our daily lives?

I encourage everyone to find something that motivates you—whether it’s learning a new language, taking an improv class or rock climbing. Then, push your limits. You’ll be surprised where risky play can take you.

Tell us about your favorite TEDMED 2014 talks or performances that left an impression with you.

I found the whole program to be tremendously inspiring. But that said, if I have to play favorites, I was bowled over by Jeff Karp’s talk on bio-inspiration. His work on finding inspiration in the natural world and then bioengineering it for modern-day use just blew me away. I would never have thought about translating the properties of porcupine quills into state-of-the-art surgical staples– nor would I have agreed to put said quills into my face as a test–but Jeff did! —and it was a pleasure to learn more about his research and the way he thinks about problem-solving.

Jeff Iliff’s talk on sleep and the glymphatic system was fascinating. I remember one of my own neuroscience professors discussing the mysteries of how the brain clears out its waste almost 20 years ago. It’s such a big question—and one that has implications for neurodegenerative disease. I love that technology has advanced to the point where researchers like Jeff and his colleagues are beginning to figure it out. Also, he reminded me that I really need to make sure I get my beauty rest!

And, finally, I enjoyed Sophie de Oliveira Barata’s talk on the Alternative Limb Project. In a former life, I was the wife of a military officer during Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. In that role, I met far too many soldiers who lost limbs. While prosthetic technologies are wonderful, many artificial limbs can feel a bit blank and soulless. Her creations moved me. And they show that we can embrace our differences, even those that we did not choose for ourselves, and allow them to be just another canvas to show the world who we are inside.

But I feel like I’m leaving out other great talks and performances—like those by Leana Wen, John Cryan, Carl Hart, Danielle Ofri, Marc Abrahams, Sonia Shah, Cole Galloway, Heather Raffo and Farah Siraj. Really, I could go on and on.

What is the legacy you want to leave?

Our family motto is “experiences over possessions.” I hope that, over the course of my career, I’ll inspire people to explore, to connect, to laugh and to live as fully as they can. And that, of course, requires being open to both playing and taking risks.

What’s next for you?

I’m finishing up my forthcoming book about the science of risk-taking, The
Art of Risk: The New Science of Courage, Caution, and Chance. It hits
shelves March 2016.