Sunday, February 05, 2012

HT Mockingbird: What's Wrong with the Teenage Mind?


Recent studies in the neuroscientist B.J. Casey's lab at Cornell University suggest that adolescents aren't reckless because they underestimate risks, but because they overestimate rewards—or, rather, find rewards more rewarding than adults do. The reward centers of the adolescent brain are much more active than those of either children or adults. Think about the incomparable intensity of first love, the never-to-be-recaptured glory of the high-school basketball championship.

... In the past, to become a good gatherer or hunter, cook or caregiver, you would actually practice gathering, hunting, cooking and taking care of children all through middle childhood and early adolescence—tuning up just the prefrontal wiring you'd need as an adult. But you'd do all that under expert adult supervision and in the protected world of childhood, where the impact of your inevitable failures would be blunted. When the motivational juice of puberty arrived, you'd be ready to go after the real rewards, in the world outside, with new intensity and exuberance, but you'd also have the skill and control to do it effectively and reasonably safely.

... At the same time, contemporary children have very little experience with the kinds of tasks that they'll have to perform as grown-ups. Children have increasingly little chance to practice even basic skills like cooking and caregiving. Contemporary adolescents and pre-adolescents often don't do much of anything except go to school. Even the paper route and the baby-sitting job have largely disappeared.

The experience of trying to achieve a real goal in real time in the real world is increasingly delayed, and the growth of the control system depends on just those experiences. The pediatrician and developmental psychologist Ronald Dahl at the University of California, Berkeley, has a good metaphor for the result: Today's adolescents develop an accelerator a long time before they can steer and brake.

...  For most of our history, children have started their internships when they were seven, not 27.

Lots of fascinating comments and observations in the above article. As I have blogged at a number of points here about men and disposability in society there are people who assume the crisis of young men is they won't grow up.  What if we flip it around and look at it the other way?  What if decades of fiscal policy and industry change and educational shifts have created an environment in which these young men (and not so young men) are lacking a role to play?  It's not so much that these guys are doing nothing because that's what they all want to do, it's because not everyone is an alpha male, not everyone is cut out to be some entrepreneur, and not everyone is cut out to go fill the jobs that are available.  The "mancession" was called what it's been for reasons.

Even an American Christian's attempts to speak about this in terms of "legacy" merely reflects a portion of the overall problem.  "Legacy" is something you're supposed to accomplish as an individual for yourself.  Legacy is not presented as something someone else gives you that you can continue, not in the circles in which I've heard presentations and conversations about legacy.  The internship that startes at 7 instead of 27 was a social and family setting in which you figured out what you were going to do because there was something immediately pressing to which you could be useful, if I hazard a guess.  The reality is that most of us have no legacy that will last or be known.  Ecclesiastes does not urge us to build a legacy, far from it.  We are urged to find joy in the work we have to do because that's our lot.  It's not in a legacy that will be forgotten as soon as before our deaths, if indeed we have legacies anyone remembers.

That the teenage mind over-estimates reward sure could make sense of a few things, couldn't it?

I never had a teenage first love or a high school achievement I felt incomparably proud of. There's nothing I wrote among poems or music from my teen years I make a habit of looking back on with pride.  I look back on things with amusement that is now a dual mixture of the amusement I felt at the time and the amusement I have now about how bad the stuff was.  We're never as awesome as we think we are, particularly as teenagers.

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