The human brain matures by the time you reach 18, right? Wrong. At least according to professor Harlene Hayne of the University of Otago. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI scanning) researchers have found that adult functioning does not eventuate until you reach your mid-20’s. Anecdotal evidence has been telling us this for ages, for some reason most countries in the western world insist on pronouncing 18 year olds to be adults, as though making it legal for them to drink and vote makes it so. The folly of that has been staring us in the face for decades now.
Adolescence is a time of rapid brain development. (I can hear the more cynical of us begging to differ on that) Hayne says, “The brain is most vulnerable when it is undergoing very rapid periods of development, which is why the human fetal brain is so influenced by prenatal exposure to alcohol.”
The development of a safe, non-invasive technology has made it possible to study the brains of young people while they performed mental tasks. (Oh stop, they do too!) Haynes continues, “We see, in fact, the adolescent brain is highly susceptible to damage and it’s also highly receptive to new experience, which is what makes teaching adolescents such a rewarding experience, because their brain is really poised to process information in a very new way. The developmental changes in the late-adolescent brain are both its biggest weakness and its greatest strength, and it’s up to those of us who work with them on a daily basis to arrange circumstances that facilitate growth and minimise harm.”
Adolescents are more risk-prone and less risk-averse because their brains are reward driven. This is due to the development of the dopamine system. They’re also more responsive to certain classes of drugs, including alcohol, which can lead to problems of over consumption and addiction. Research shows that those who have a history of alcohol consumption have lower functioning brains than those who don’t.
The implications of all this are plain to see. In my part of the world, and i’m guessing in America too, teenage alchohol consumption is rising at an alarming rate. Especially among girls, who are doing their damndest to outdo their male counterparts. The extent of the damage won’t be apparent until they reach middle adulthood, but if Hayne is correct, we’re going to be seeing a generation less capable of running the world than any previous generation. Us Boomers will be gone by then, but I feel sorry for my daughter’s generation when they reach old age and have to rely on today’s youth to run things. That is, unless steps are taken now to reverse the current trend.
We need to revisit laws around driving age, drinking and especially military induction. It’s becoming apparent that 18 year olds simply do not have the brain development to make an informed decision about going off to war. Well, actually, nobody does, but that’s another matter. Perhaps they should be allowed to enlist at 18, if they so desire, but is it really ethical to send them off to fight when their brains are not fully developed? The fiasco that occurred at Abu Ghraib (Baghdad Central Prison) and other incidents in Iraq involving young soldiers seems to indicate that it isn’t.
The young are the future. We know this. I know that my generation ingested prodigious quantities of substances that probably didn’t do us any favors, but we didn’t consume nearly the amount of alchohol that today’s youth do, and that seems to be the major problem we will face. Liquor companies increasingly target youth with alco-pops and other insidious concoctions. It started in the 80’s with wine coolers. Perhaps it’s time they were held responsible for their actions, before we all pay a terrible price.
My two cents, I welcome yours.