Dr Matt Bellace talks to students and parents about the teenage brain, risk-taking and natural highs. 

ISZL was delighted to welcome Dr Matt Bellace to our school to discuss teenage brains and the importance of finding natural highs.

Matt Bellace, PhD, is an author, psychologist and stand-up comedian who advocates for teenagers making healthy choices at school and university.

Talking to ISZL parents, he explained the power of friends being present on risk-taking behaviour. While teenagers may weigh up information effectively by themselves, the presence of their peers means they are likely to take greater risks.

However risk-taking, he reminded the audience, doesn’t just mean that safe choices are the better ones. Trying out for a sports team or a school play is an example of the kind of healthy risk-taking which leads to a richer life.

He spoke about risk-taking as a driver of achievement, and the ability of setbacks to fuel productivity

He also stressed the importance of positive support in helping young people as their brains mature.

The right sorts of risks – and the right sorts of highs

Music, meditation and exercise were all given as an example of natural highs.  Dr Bellace pointed out that here in Zug we were lucky to have a range of outdoor sports on our doorstep, as well as countryside and outdoor water, all of which could help with achieving a natural high. Time spent in nature, he told ISZL parents, reduces cortisol levels as much as meditation.

Natural highs have a similar effect on the brain to some drugs, nicotine and alcohol, but without the hangover and the poor choices that can come about when under their influence.

He spoke about the effect of sleep deprivation on the brain, and its effects on the amygdala, the part of the brain which processes emotional responses including fear and anger. He also spoke about the effect of smoking and vaping, with a link between nicotine and reported depression.

Dr Bellace ended on the power of music to reshape mood, including concentration and bringing about feelings of happiness.

The visit was an experience from ISZL’s Fund for Excellence, which exists to create educational experiences beyond the school curriculum. He also spoke to Middle and High School students as part of his visit.