“The Terrible Teens,” by Elizabeth Kolbert. The New Yorker, 8/31/2015.
Just as we have always suspected, teenage brains are defective. Mine certainly was, as those of you who knew me in high school are well aware. One example is our game of running over the Scottdale Road railroad bridge ahead of an oncoming commuter train (see The Gladstone Manor Playground, 1/16/2009). Why was that fun? Was I crazy? Yes, but probably no worse than you at that age. Your craziness was just expressed differently.
The frontal lobes of our brains are responsible for planning, self-awareness, and judgment, all the good stuff that restrains our base impulses originating in the deep, dark, section farther back, called the reptilian section for good reason. During our teenage years, our brains are busy building links between the different regions, but the process begins at the back, and the frontal lobes are the last to be completed. Judgment may be happening in the frontal lobes, but it doesn’t do anything without the links, doesn’t translate into behavior. “You need to act as the frontal lobes for your children until their brains are fully wired,” advises one neurologist.
Studies have shown we disproportionately recall experiences we had between the ages of ten and twenty-five. (Many, we wish we could forget.)
Typical teenage irresponsibility is not from a lack of family values, a lack of family discipline, or a religious vacuum; it is just that teenagers lack the physical connections that will develop with time. Education and nagging doesn’t help. A $1.4 billion government anti-drug media blitz a few years ago was found to be ineffective, despite the huge amount of money spent.
The lack of judgement phase is only temporary. If the teenager survives, as most do, they can mature into responsible, upstanding adults. Fiftieth class reunions are typically a surprise of how well the class clowns and goof-offs have turned out. Who would have thought? We call them “late bloomers.” “Late linkers” would be more accurate.
Lesson one: Even the worst of the teenagers may turn out well.
Now, there is a new explanation that adds to the maturity explanation. The brain’s pleasure center, the nucleus accumbens, begins growing in childhood, peaks in our teens, then declines. Dopamine receptors, that register pleasure, also peak during puberty. This all means that as teens we experience pleasures more intensely than we do now, or ever will again, as I found by revisiting Charlie’s Hamburgers a few years ago. The things we did as teenagers really were more fun, but mainly because we were teenagers.
All of this can be explained by evolution. Our primate ancestors had be encouraged to take chances to find mates away from their family group. The cost of staying safely at home was genetic oblivion. As we grow older, safety and good judgement become important again to raise the family. This adolescent stage of recklessness is not needed in today’s world of Internet matchmaking and easy travel, but we are stuck with the old pattern of behavior.
Lesson two: Trying to recreate those short, intense pleasures we remember so well in later life will never be as much fun, i.e., binge drinking, riding roller coasters, groping strange girls in the back seat of a car (or being groped by a strange boy). Don’t even try; at our age, it just leads to trouble.