Thinking more about Generation M: Is adolescence a con we perpetrate on ourselves?

This is a short post about what could be a big subject. [Do I hear sighs of relief? Enough already! :-) ]

There’s a fascinating article in the latest Scientific American MIND:

Scientific American Mind: The Teen Brain, Hard at Work
Under challenging conditions, adolescents may assess and react less efficiently than adults

The Big Endians argue that there is such a thing as a teen brain, distinct and different from an adult brain, that these differences can be seen by fMRI scans of prefrontal cortex activity, and that endogenous behaviour control begins to win in its battle with exogenous behaviour control as the adolescent grows into a mature adult. That this maturing process involves synaptic pruning and more efficient use of prefrontal cortex resources over time.

The Little Endians argue that this is pure hogwash, that all these differences are culturally and environmentally triggered, that the entire Big Endian argument is a Sell More Psychoactive Drugs campaign.

And somewhere in between they’ve figured out that the brain stays pretty much the same size from the age of six or so.

I am not a neuroscientist, a psychiatrist or a psychologist. Just an interested amateur. But the whole debate intrigues me greatly, since it has significant implications for how we deal with education and how we deal with Generation M.

Of course there are physical and physiological and hormonal changes going on, this is not in doubt. What I am intrigued about is whether there are significant changes in the brain, other than that we would call learning and adaptation.
So I ask myself, “Is it possible that teenage angst is a function of the environment and culture rather than age? That the “teenager” finds himself (or herself) asked to behave “like an adult”, while amongst a heap of adults who patently don’t “behave like adults”. And it is this that causes the angst.”

I ask myself “Is it possible that adults could have the multitasking high-speed responsive cognitive abilities that “teenagers” exhibit, if only they hadn’t had their synaptic pruning and endogenous behaviour control kicking in?”

I ask myself “Have we perpetrated a con on ourselves, force-fitting a unnecessary teenage phase into everyone’s lives by defining such a phase, then describing all the painful consequences of that force-fit as “what teenagers do”?

And finally I ask myself, “Is Generation M different because they were the first Western generation to refuse to accept the con? Did Generation M hold on to the different ways of handling the prefrontal cortex, did they refuse to allow synaptic pruning, did they somehow avoid some of the conditioning and anchoring and framing that previous generations did in the name of Growing Up?”

Update: Let me try and frame all this a little better. Is it possible that children stop asking why because they get told “because I told you so?”, and that some of this shows up as “synaptic pruning” ? Is it possible that everyone has the cognitive and multitasking abilities that Generation M portrays, but that these abilities are “conditioned” out of existence? Is it possible that the videogame and MMOG generations have held on to some abilities that prior generations have lost? Is it possible that something in what we call “maturing”, as endogenous capabilities override exogenous, actually loses some of these innate capabilities?

Hope that helps people understand where I’m coming from. In no way am I challenging the physical growth stages, these are obvious. What I seek to understand are the mental changes from a neurological sense rather than from what we term education.

Just musing. As I try to understand. Comments welcome.

7 thoughts on “Thinking more about Generation M: Is adolescence a con we perpetrate on ourselves?”

  1. I would recommend the book “Why Do They Act That Way?” by David Walsh and Nat Bennett. While not the direct source of scientific info, they do reference studies that suggest that, yes indeed, the teenage brain is biologically still developing and doesn’t fully mature until a person is somewhere in their mid-20s.

    Bottom line: teenagers are less able to control impules, are more susceptible to mood swings and in general have a harder time making rational decisions in the way that adults do.

    I don’t know that it invalidates the questions you ask about Generation M, which has a lot more to do with the different kind of world they find thereselves in. And it doesn’t invalidate your point that the teenage phase is in part a cultural phenomena: part conventoin and part myth. But I do believe that the biological differences are real.

  2. Being a teenager myself, this is what i feel: Too much is often expected of Teenagers. For example we are expected not to behave like children yet not given the responsilbility or respect that adults recieve.

    I feel that many teenagers mature before they hit adulthood ; could be due to the different situations they have experienced that forced them to be aware of what the “big, bad world” is like. However, many adults simply brush off the 2 cents worth that teens give. This is just due the mentality of the adults that they feel that the teens have no idea what they are talking about.

    Also i do agree that teenagers find it unreasonable for being treated in this manner when there are loads of adults out there that behave worse than them and have no common sense.

    I am inclined to believe that a teenager’s brain is much different from that of an adults because of so many differences between an adult and a teen.

    As much as i do not like Britney Spears and her songs, i could not help recalling her song: I am not a girl, not yet a woman. Because that really does hold some truth.

  3. Re. “synaptic pruning”.

    I prune stuff in my garden to encourage growth. Yes, I am shaping the tree or shrub in a particular way that I consider good and you may say that I am not allowing it to develop naturally, but on the whole pruning is a positive contribution to the well-being of the plant and the glory of my garden.

    Perhaps “synaptic bonsai” is more like what you mean :-)

  4. Synaptic bonsai. I like that.

    But your route has a number of risks. One, that you know what you’re doing when you do the pruning. This may be true for Dominic and for trees and shrubs, but this is not always the case. Think about frontal lobotomies and ECT.

    The second risk is that what you do is in the context of what you “consider good”, an extremely subjective stance. This may work when the relationship between you and what you prune is possessive, the plant is yours and yours alone. It is somewhat more worrying when the plant being pruned is someone else’s head.

    I prefer to think of it this way; plants get pruned in order to coexist in an ecosystem with specific constraints in the context of nutrients and water and sunshine and space. Without the pruning, they are suboptimal in the context of the constraints and of the overall garden.

    It is about evolutionary adaptation in order to coexist, sometimes self-driven, as in heliotropes, sometimes with Invisible Hands, such as Dominic and his shrubs. Kids and youth and even adults go through that, at home and school and university and work and life.

    They adapt. They evolve. They respond to external stimuli. Good. But would you let me prune Gilbert?

  5. At the risk of pushing a metaphor too far, Gilbert is a vigorous hardy shrub with a strong root system. I see your role more as manure. Full of essential nutrients!

Let me know what you think

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