Much of the research quoted in this Paper is very recent. So far little of this research relates directly to the adolescent brain nor to the possibility that this is a time-limited adaptation, critical to how the individual will reshape its brain so shaping its capacities to deal with a problematic future. This Paper is probably unique in the claim that it makes that a proper understanding of the relationship between the change in the very young brain and that of the adolescent provides the theoretical base for a complete restructuring of formal and informal systems of education. Conventional academic research lacks a methodology able to relate these “different ways of knowing” into a coherent intellectual argument. A world of specialists is too much like the blind men of the Hindu proverb in their approach to the elephant.
The article published in Time Magazine in May 2004 “What makes Teens Tick” from which several of the above quotations were extracted, made no attempt to link any of the most recent findings from neurology to their possible evolutionary origins. Curiously the book from which that article appears to have drawn so heavily (but without any acknowledgment) was Strauch’s “The Primal Teen” published in the U.S. exactly a year earlier. Strauch does start to make such connections, but only tentatively. “Human brains are little wads of evolutionary history”, she wrote, and went on to cite Dr Francine Benes, a psychologist and neurologist from Harvard, “During childhood and early adolescence emotional experiences are not well integrated with cognitive processes. That means that you get an impulsive action that seems to bear little relation to what is otherwise happening.” As the neural networks in the adolescent brain grow better insulation (myelin sheathing) so “teenagers become more capable of mature forms of behaviour.”
In such careful language the neurologist records her research findings. But then Benes went on to make a very human, intuitive, observation. “But in a way it’s too bad to lose all that, don’t you think? Teenagers are full of exuberance, that’s what drives us. We adults tend to keep it under wraps; we wait until we get home. Sometimes I think it is too bad we can’t keep some more of that.”
Most scientists are reluctant to make such an all-embracing statement that is useful in reconfiguring popular assumptions. One man who has done so is an anthropologist from the University of Michigan, Barry Bogin; “Adolescence is fairly recent”, (in evolutionary terms) he says, “and it developed because it was a survival mechanism for the species.” Most unhelpfully the great majority of scientists are so concerned to protect their academic reputations that they decline any responsibility to speak with authority outside their immediate disciplines. They appear to be afraid to use any form of intuition. This includes Giedd in his long-term study of adolescence; “I’m guessing here”, he said as he attempted to explain why boys and girls differed in their spatial appreciation, “but I would say that, in evolutionary terms, there was more pressure on man to develop parts of the brain that are connected to spatial skills like hunting…”
At that point the neurologist in Giedd stopped short. When Giedd said he was “guessing”, the limitations of modern scientific methodology demarcated as they are by the individual procedures of separate disciplines become frighteningly obvious. Giedd was unintentionally making the case for the synthesis which this Paper has sought to make – and which educationalists and policy makers desperately need to inform their judgments. Subject experts are overly sensitive to respecting their separate areas of expertise.
This Paper argues that it will only be when enough people can intuitively appreciate the kind of Synthesis set out here that they will see in adolescence that evolutionary adaptation which society continues to ignore at its peril. To do this academics need more humility, and ordinary people need more confidence in their innate ability to see how things come together. Then society will be primed for action. It is the application of ideas that matters most to people. Consequently it has to be the responsibility of those with a gift for teasing out the detail in abstract ideas, to make their findings readily available to people of action.
The separation of thinking from doing has been going on for a long time. In his classic short treatise “What is Life”, the Austrian biologist Erwin Schrodinger wrote in 1943 “a scientist is supposed to have a complete and thorough knowledge at first hand of some subject, and therefore is usually expected not to write on any topic of which he is not a master… We have inherited from our forefathers the keen longing for unified, all-embracing knowledge… the universal aspect (was what universities was set up to establish) the spread of… multifarious branches of knowledge… confronts us with a queer dilemma… it has become next to impossible for a single mind to comprehend it all.
Schrodinger went on “I can see no other escape from this dilemma (lest our true aim be lost forever) than some of us should embark on a synthesis of fact and theories, or be it with a second-hand and incomplete knowledge of some of them – albeit at the risk of making fools of ourselves.”
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The implications of such an understanding about brain development are enormous. Every reader will wish to ponder for themselves the many issues that this Paper raises. They challenge many preconceived ideas about how education should be organized. Any careful reader will want to question the synthesis, and that is entirely appropriate. As it stands, as of January 2005, and with the information currently available to The Initiative, this is the conclusion that we have come to. Some of the research is obviously more robust than other parts and, in particular, The Initiative is well aware that much remains to be discovered about neurological changes in the adolescent brain. In time a methodology should evolve which will make it easier to create a synthesis from across different subjects, as well as between the physical and social sciences. This may happen when we allow ourselves to have greater faith in our powers of intuition.