Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Overgrown Children or Young Adults?

Normally, in our society, children become adults when they reach the age of 18.

By that time they will have acquired the right to vote, the right to drive, the right to join the Navy, the right to get a full time job, the right to do porn, the right to marry and the right to procreate. In many states they will also have gained the right to consume alcoholic beverages. If they are female, they are definitively no longer jail bait.

Now, thanks to the wonders of neuroscience, we have learned that 25 is the new 18. In Great Britain, that is. That great nation has just proclaimed that anyone under the age of 25 will now be considered to be a child. An overgrown child, perhaps, but a child nonetheless. Said overgrown child will now be consulting with a child psychologist rather than an adult psychologist.

The BBC reports on the astonishing finding:

"Neuroscience has made these massive advances where we now don't think that things just stop at a certain age, that actually there's evidence of brain development well into early twenties and that actually the time at which things stop is much later than we first thought," says [Laverne] Antrobus.

There are three stages of adolescence - early adolescence from 12-14 years, middle adolescence from 15-17 years and late adolescence from 18 years and over.

Neuroscience has shown that a young person's cognitive development continues into this later stage and that their emotional maturity, self-image and judgement will be affected until the prefrontal cortex of the brain has fully developed.

Think of the implications.

Does this mean that we should not allow anyone to vote before age 25? Does it mean that no one should be allowed to drink alcoholic beverages until neuroscience declares that their prefrontal cortex has developed fully? And what about marriage and procreation? Should anyone under the age of 25 be allowed to marry or procreate? If their moral reasoning has not yet fully developed does that mean that they should no longer be held responsible for their actions?

Obviously, these are thorny questions. They are made somewhat thornier by the fact that in the Jewish religion, boys and girls are Bar and Bat Mitzvahed at age 13. That coming-of-age ceremony declares them to be men and women. Should Jews modify their tradition in order to bring it into closer accord with the latest developments from neuroscience?

In part, the problem is sematic. Should we treat adolescents as overgrown children or young adults? Should society try to mire them in an extended childhood or encourage them to take on adult responsibilities?

I will not venture to comment on neuroscience, but if I may ask, does the brain develop differently for a post-adolescent if he is treated as a large child or a young adult? Does his capacity for moral reasoning develop more quickly if he is granted more responsibilities sooner?

I daresay that no one in the past thought that 18-year-olds were fully functioning adults. These beings have often compensated for their youth by learning how to take advice from those older and wiser. They were considered to be apprentices and received guidance and encouragement. In this way, they learned how to function as adults more quickly and more surely than they would if they were unemployed and living with their parents.

This method only works if children are taught to respect authority. They need to learn how to take advice from those older and wiser. When you teach children never to trust anyone over 30 you are consigning them to an extended adolescence.

Interviewed for the BBC article, sociologist Frank Furedi explained that society’s expectations have changed radically. We expect very little from adolescents and are, effectively, not disappointed.

The BBC quotes Furedi:

"Often it's claimed it's for economic reasons, but actually it's not really for that," says Furedi. "There is a loss of the aspiration for independence and striking out on your own. When I went to university it would have been a social death to have been seen with your parents, whereas now it's the norm.

"So you have this kind of cultural shift which basically means that adolescence extends into your late twenties and that can hamper you in all kinds of ways, and I think what psychology does is it inadvertently reinforces that kind of passivity and powerlessness and immaturity and normalises that."


Sam L. said...

Then, should they be allowed to drive a powered vehicle?

David Foster said...

There is confusion about hardware and software here. Why should "cognitive development" need to be particularly manifested by physical brain rewiring?

As an analogy, the laptop on which I am writing this could equally well act a mathematical equation solver for bridge design, a guidance system calculator for a ballistic missile, or a controller for a machine tool...all without being sent back to the factory for hardware changes.

Why would it be assumed that in humans, changes to the physical brain must necessarily outweigh life experiences which clearly change the brain's behavior?

Anonymous said...

Knowledge in brains is implicit in the adaptive neural network. There is no distinction between hardware and software in a brain. Memories of life experiences are stored as adaptive changes in the brain.

The Common Law and criminal law have been attempting to deal with the philosophical problems of formative experience and responsibility for ages. The Age of Reason was arbitrarily set at 7 and the end of infancy at 18. The law regards a contract between an infant and adult as void or unenforceable. Although one could contract to enter the military at 16 or 17 and it might be enforced.

David Foster said...

Anon 5:30...the researchers said "there's evidence of brain development well into early twenties and that actually the time at which things stop is much later than we first thought"...given that people do remember things that occurred after their early twenties, the researchers must be positing a difference in kind between the brain changes that occur in the earlier phase and those that are ongoing and more specific to the individual.