Swimming with sharks

By her account, adolescents suffer from the cerebral equivalent of defective spark plugs.

In her article for The New Yorker, “The Terrible Teens,” Elizabeth Kolbert underscores why I’m crazy to live with this undeveloped humans, what with their frontal lobes shitting the bed, marginalizing any hope of executive functioning. America’s political brain operates in a similar way. There’s an executive branch, manned by the President, but it’s not quite activated. It’s there, latent and all. But it’s fair to say our political system hasn’t matured into its adult form yet. In fact, it might be fair to say that no political system has ever reached maturity. Planning, self-awareness, and judgment, the qualities that come with the frontal lobes being fully myelinated and connected to the rest of the brain…these things aren’t there in our teenagers, nor our adolescent government.

If not loosely connected frontal lobes, it’s an enlarged nucleus accumbens, or “the pleasure center,” which is largest in the teenage brain. Self-serving politicians primarily chasing pleasure? The metaphor extends. But let’s not belabor it.

Adolescents are risk-takers, thanks to evolutionary necessity. As Kolbert writes, “they’re programmed to take crazy risks, so that’s what they do.” We’ve long understood, expected, yet demonized this inclination, conveniently forgetting that we were under the same biological spell at that age, unless we were more effective in internalizing society’s repressive impositions, which can have quite dangerous implications considering that this whole business is fundamentally motivated by sex.

To find mates, our primate ancestors had to venture outside their natal groups. The reward for taking chances in dangerous terrain was sex followed by reproduction, while the cost of sensibly staying at home was genetic oblivion.

There was and is pleasure in the journey and the destination here. Physical pleasure. Adolescents aren’t stupid. As Kolbert points out, “they actually do understand that driving [as an example] is dangerous; the problem is that they’re having too much fun to care.” In our age, when survival is relatively secure and leisure prevails, excitement and pleasure have to be manufactured on a near-constant basis. Hence why we can easily get lost in titillating entertainment, which functions as pitifully ersatz sex, and/or arousing, risky action. We developed “when survival at any age was a crapshoot,” so YOLO is more an evolutionary calling than a ridiculous internet meme (not that things are mutually exclusive here).

I suppose this post should have a point. What I’m taking away from the article is the flood of neuroscientific revelation that will drown us soon enough. I’m eager to see how we’ll swim in those waters.

In the meantime, it looks like I’m swimming with sharks.

1 Comment

  1. dasfuller

    The June issue of Scientific American had a huge article about teenage brains. I didn’t read Kolbert’s New Yorker article, so I don’t know if she’d read the SA article.


    Also, let’s do away with this stupid mainstream idea that teenagers brains are “programmed” to do this or that. The analogy is wholly flawed. What’s happening is some parts of the teenage brain *hardware* are getting “upgraded” faster than other parts, so that the software that runs on it (the program called “being human”) is suddenly finding itself with more resources it can work with (age 8: “I’ve got a new concrete-thinking CPU!”; age 11: “Holy shit, an upgrade to a new abstract-thinking CPU!”).


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