Uh, About that Teenaged Brain …
In the 1970’s, feminist Gloria Steinem wrote a famous essay considering ways the world might be different if men menstruated and women did not. Among other things, Steinem suggested sexist men would use women’s lack of menstruation to argue women are unsuited for the medical profession (“Women might faint at the sight of blood!”) or for the military (“Can women be properly fierce without a monthly cycle governed by the planet Mars?”). Without a biological feature that measures the month, or any span of time, it would be argued women were less fit for roles that involved math or science.
We may soon see something like that in real life because a scientific “fact” that has long been used to justify restrictions on youth has now been, not just debunked, but reversed.
Old Brain Science
For years we’ve been told the adolescent mind is inferior (Undeveloped!!) and that this inferiority makes teenagers impulsive and disinclined to weigh risks before making decisions.
This stereotype has been used to rationalize many restrictions on youth. Teenagers are denied drivers licenses (or relegated to overly restrictive “graduated driver licenses”) on the theory that impulsive teenagers will drive dangerously, failing to think before they act. The drinking age is justified with the belief that teenagers are biologically less capable of weighing the risks and rewards of getting drunk. Curfew laws are needed, we’ve been told, because teenagers’ impulsiveness prevents them from acting civilized.
New Brain Science
New research suggests adults are actually more impulsive than teenagers.
Researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City conducted an experiment in which they had both teenagers and adults play a game in which players received points for correctly predicting which way a dot on the screen would move. Teenagers took longer than adults to make their predictions.
Was it because teenagers were dumber than adults? Was it because teenagers refused to pay attention to the game, their minds constantly on sex? Was it because the teenagers were stoned? No.
Brain scans showed what was going on in participants’ brains during this game. The teenagers showed significantly higher brain activity than the adults did in the prefrontal cortex and parietal cortex, showing that the teenagers were doing a more thorough job than the adults of examining the clues before making their carefully measured choices.
By the way, if “prefrontal cortex” sounds familiar to you, here’s why: that’s the part of the brain that the media kept telling us teenagers couldn’t use because it was undeveloped until adulthood. That’s the impulse-control part of the brain. It turns out, not only does the teenage brain have this feature, but it’s more active – more alive – than the adult-brain version.
Maybe this is why supermarkets are more successful at getting shoppers to make impulse buys than teachers are at getting students to do impulse homework.
The amusing thing will be watching how politicians and interest groups now defend ageist policies. What will they say after years of justifying restrictions with claims that teenagers are too impulsive?
For now, they are ignoring the science. The media are giving little attention to this new research, since it doesn’t support the narrative reporters enjoy pushing. The few outlets that are covering it are burying the lead, headlining “TEENAGERS CAN BE SMART, TOO, SOMETIMES” and waiting for a few paragraphs to add “smarter than adults.”
But eventually, the truth will get out. Will politicians then repeal all these ageist laws? Will they in fact ban adults from driving and from voting now that we know adults have poor impulse-control as their prefrontal cortex has over-ripened and is no longer as active?
Yeah, right. We all know the answer. Discriminators gonna discriminate, and not against themselves.
I imagine some MADD moron will soon defend graduated driver licenses by saying, “Driving calls for quick decisions. As the science now proves, teenagers’ immature brains lead them to examine things too thoroughly before reaching any decisions. This analysis-paralysis causes young drivers to over-think every move, and that delay can be deadly. Only adults, with our fully-developed brains free of excessive caution, can be trusted to make the quick life-and-death decisions that driving often calls for. It’s only logical.”