As I See It: The Other Final Frontier
October 10, 2011 Victor Rozek
In its 123 years of existence, National Geographic magazine has explored some inhospitable landscapes. Intrepid adventurers have hacked across the Amazon jungle, inched their way through underwater cave systems on the Yucatan Peninsula, and pulled sleds in sub-zero temperatures through ice and snow until they ran out of North. But in this month’s issue they tackle what may be the most impregnable and unfathomable landscape of all: The teenage brain.
Teenagers have been the source of parental discontent since Ayla roamed the Neanderthal frontier looking for a split-level cave. Neanderkinders no doubt lost their spears, failed to tidy up the cavern, and had to be clubbed upside the head to get them off the bearskins and out gathering firewood. As David Dobbs notes in his feature article Beautiful Brains; from Aristotle to Freud, the great thinkers of their times had nothing encouraging to say about the behavioral proclivities of the teenager. Shakespeare wished that kids would simply enter a comatose state between the ages of 10 and 23.
But if every generation unfailingly complains about its young, this universal lament may only prove how little adults remember of their own adolescence. Nonetheless, every generation has to overcome the prejudice that they are somehow less noble and industrious than their parents.
The immersion of adolescent psyches in a roiling cauldron of technological soup hasn’t simplified matters. Because as we change our technology, technology is changing us. The teenage brain, never the model of temperance and stability, is evolving in unprecedented and unpredictable ways. Technology is giving evolution an assist, quickening the tempo of an ancient, deliberate process that heretofore unfolded at a pace dictated by nature.
At one time it was thought that the foundation of the brain’s architecture was developed by the time a child was five or six. The teenage brain was looked upon as a less-efficient adult brain–like a computer without a full operating system. But the advent of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) provided a means to explore the mysteries beneath the teenage cranium because MRIs require neither harmful dyes nor radiation. (Although I suspect that more than a few parents would authorize a small burst of radiation if they thought it would actually make a difference.) And equally important, MRIs offered a way to study brain development over time.
The findings were surprising. For one thing, contrary to former beliefs, the brain continues developing into the mid-20s. “Our brains,” says Dobbs, “undergo a massive reorganization between our 12th and 25th year.” For another, the adolescent traits that seem most dangerous and keep parents up at night–like sensation seeking and risk taking–have nonetheless survived the rigorous process of natural selection. Plus, they are present across virtually all times and cultures, which suggests they have a usefulness beyond annoyance value.
And, in fact, they do. The search for sensation and the propensity to take risks provide the impetus for teens to leave the predictable safety of the nest and venture forth into the world. Otherwise, free food and laundry service might be enough to keep them home indefinitely. In Dobbs’ words, “The move outward from the home is the most difficult thing that humans do.” And nature, it seems, is kick-starting that process.
The brain develops in what Dobbs terms “a slow wave” from the back to the front; from the more basic functions (“vision, movement, fundamental processing”), to the evolutionarily more advanced reasoning found in the frontal lobes. The process initially involves over-producing brain cells (neurons) and connections between brain cells (synapses), which are then pruned back around the age of three. Like pruning a tree, cutting back the weak branches allows others to flourish. The second wave of synapse formation occurs in the frontal cortex just before puberty, and is again pruned back in adolescence.
The final synaptic connections bridge the left and right hemispheres responsible for higher-order cognitive processes such as reasoning, planning, and judgment. It is worth noting that these are not completed until the mid or even late 20s–which is why young men make the most willing soldiers. Delayed development and the predisposition to risk may also explain why so many early marriages fail.
Technology influences brain development in both form and content. The connections that become hardwired are the connections that are being trained. Thus, if the little dauphin is exposed to a challenging curriculum, and spends more time studying than texting and playing video games, chances are his brain will be wired for academic success.
Yet, most teens spend more screen time than book time. As a result, their brains evolved to show marked improvement in visual motor coordination and dexterity. As yet, however, there is no evidence that interacting with technology improves higher level intellectual functioning. There is, though, imaging evidence that young adult brains look different than those of their parents.
The reason may be linked to evolution that favors those best prepared for survival. Natural selection, argues Dobbs, is brutal on species slow to adapt. Non-adaptive traits are quickly lost as are the individuals who inherit them. Teens act as they do because “they are quite possibly the most fully, crucially adaptive human beings around,” concludes Dobbs.
I’m not sure whether to be discouraged or delighted.
Technology may indeed be preparing our children for a world we can hardly imagine. A world where time and space are constricted; a world of instant response, accelerated gratification, and incessant stimulation. A world where what you know may be less important than knowing how to access the information you need. A world where the importance of virtual reality rivals life itself.
Of course, each adaptation has a price. We know that failure to unplug from technology contributes to childhood obesity and creates a disconnect from the natural world. And what we’re not connected to, we don’t value. Studies show that adolescent priorities have changed. Twelve hours of free time a week, during which kids once played and enjoyed outdoor activities, have largely been replaced by screen time of one sort or another. To many, nature is little more than a backdrop for Survival TV.
And yet, teens have little choice but to develop a facility with technology because technology will be the motive power that drives their world. And those unable to adapt to a technology-first civilization will likely not pass their traits on.
The changes embraced by the young are often called rebellion, but that somehow seems inappropriate to the newest generation. Rebellion–when practiced en masse with the help of Madison Avenue–is conformity by another name. It is not rebellion but evolutionary need that leads teens into technology’s embrace, because their world will be recreated by their technologically-savvy peers, not their parents. How their peers do what they do, what they say and think, how they interact on social networks, and how their lives orbit around the nearest cell tower are more crucial to their long-term success than what their parents think.
Enjoy those cell phones while you can, kids. As the sardonic Fran Lebowitz, (who should be one of your heros because she was expelled from high school, and succeeded nonetheless) sagely observed: “As a teenager you are at the last stage in your life when you will be happy to hear that the phone is for you.”