What scientists are now reporting is something very different indeed. Adolescence is a period of profound structural change in the brain, in fact “the changes taking place in the brain during adolescence are so profound, they may rival early childhood as a critical period of development,” wrote Barbara Strauch in 2003. “The teenage brain, far from being ready-made, undergoes a period of surprisingly complex and crucial development. The adolescent brain”, she concludes, “is crazy by design.” That is a fascinating thought. Could “being crazy by design” be an evolutionary adaptation that actually helps the human species to survive?
And that is exactly what a few scientists are beginning to accept. One important piece of research, that by Jay Geidd of the National Institute of Health in the U.S. has identified the cerebellum, the inner most and possibly oldest part of the brain, as being the “least heritable” aspect of the brain. It is the part mainly concerned with social issues and deconstructing problematic relationships, but it is the cerebellum that Geidd believes changes most during adolescence. “We might find out there are things we can do…(at this stage)… to make a better brain (and that) is not through four hours a night of homework. What if we find that, in the end, what the brain of the adolescent wants is play, that is certainly possible. What if the brain grows best when it is allowed to play?”
Fascinating research by the eminent Chicago psychologist, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Chick-sent-me-high) looked specifically at how adolescents are best prepared for the world of work. Csikszentmihalyi is a psychologist and his findings build on his earlier studies into what is now generally called “a state of flow” (2000). During Adolescence, Csikszentmihalyi noticed, many youngsters find enormous satisfaction in work that both excites their intellectual and emotional interests to the point that they surprise themselves at the hardness of the tasks they willingly undertake. It seems, suggests Csikszentmihalyi, that adolescents possess a special ability (an adaptation) in doing this which significantly modifies their body chemistry, so reducing their oxygen intake and the subsequent production of those chemical by-products that normally make the individual sleepy. They move into a kind of mental over-drive. Csikszentmihalyi calls this a state of “flow.” Csikszentmihalyi reported that the youngsters who eventually did best in adult life were those who earlier had “found school more play like than work like.” Secondly he found that those who, as adolescents, had an involvement in an intense activity (regardless of what this might actually have been) were the ones who were far better prepared for their future adult roles than those who had good conventional work experience, or well-defined vocational goals. “When people think back on those times when they felt most alive… chances are that it was when they had occasion to confront a task which they were only just able to master”, writes Csikszentmihalyi.
It seems counter intuitive; why should humans get so much satisfaction from struggling to do an almost impossible activity? Why do we climb mountains or attempt to break somebody else’s record? Why, indeed, are we so competitive but often not interested in the reward? ”The reason does not seem to be that we are brain washed as children or socialize to enjoy difficult things. It is more likely that we are born with a preference for acting at our fullest potential… In the development of the human nervous system a connection must have been established between hard work and a sense of pleasure, even when the work was not strictly necessary.” Perhaps, Csikszentmihalyi proposes, “enjoying mastery and competence is evolutionarily adaptive.” Quite possibly individual well being, as well as social well being, “depends to a large extent on whether as children they learnt to experience flow in productive activities.”
Which, of course, is what so much of traditional apprenticeship was all about. Unfortunately all too often it is not what contemporary secondary education is about. Thomas Hine writing in 1999 on the rise and fall of the American teenager noted “the principal reason high schools now enroll nearly all teenagers is that we can’t imagine what else to do with them.” That is a shocking conclusion by a man who spent years studying the issue. Modern society, by being so concerned for the well being of adults tries desperately to ignore the adolescent’s need to explore and do things for themselves, by giving them ever more to do in school. It is as if modern society is trying to outlaw adolescence by over schooling children. That is not education. There is a frightening man-made hole in the desirable experience for adolescents – there simply are not enough opportunities for them to learn from doing things for themselves in a modern society – that will be addressed later in this Paper.
Neither Geidd, Csikszentmihalyi, nor Barbara Strauch the most recent writer on the adolescent brain, make much of the possible influence of evolutionary experience on shaping the structure of the adolescent brain, and behaviour patterns. The one issue that Strauch does pick up on is the work of Mary Carskadon a researcher in sleep patterns at Brown University who has noted that the release of melotonin in the adolescent brain results in sleep patterns very different to those of adults. She speculates that maybe it was once necessary for adolescents to stay up late to ensure the tribe’s survival (teenage night watchman is a fascinating possibility!). “Maybe, at some point in our history”, she writes, “it was important for young people with good vision and strength to be more awake and alert later in the day to protect the tribe” (sleeping on well after the sun has risen) leaving the older, more sedate adults to protect the camp – early morning being the time when large predators, like teenagers, start to take their sleep. “Something is going on that makes adolescents sleep differently from younger kids, or older adults.”
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So what can evolutionary psychology, and evolutionary studies in general, tell us about the possible “deep” origins of human behaviour? Most scientists since the late 1990’s are coming to accept that Homo sapiens evolved in one place – not several places – and that place was central Africa. It was the experience of learning to survive on the savannah that largely shaped our mental predispositions. For the majority of that time human intellectual growth was glacially slow. Each new generation was virtually a mirror image of its ancestors. There were no new skills to pass on, little history to talk about. Something very significant appears to have happened about one hundred thousand years ago that put mankind’s intellectual development into a kind of overdrive. Anthropologists call whatever it was graphically, “the Great Leap Forward.” Suddenly, probably within only a thousand or so generations, humans became what we would call intelligent; our ancestors gained an awareness of themselves, and in so doing developed recognizable emotions. “If you prick us do we not bleed? / If you tickle us, do we not laugh? /… And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” declaimed Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice.”
All members of our species display very recognizable emotions. In their study of how human nature shapes the choices we make from day-to-day, Lawrence and Nohria (2002) draw upon a considerable range of research to show that our behaviour patterns reflect an attempt to balance four conflicting human drives –the drive to acquire, to bond, to learn and to defend. “Human beings are driven to seek ways to fulfill all four drives because these drives are the product of the species common evolutionary heritage”, he explains. They have been selected over time “because they increase evolutionary fitness – to survive and to carry on the species. The interdependence of these drives is what force people to think and chose, making us complex beings, with complex motives and complex choices.” Shylock was right; be we Jews or gentiles, black or white, we all think in the same way. We each possess – in different degrees – the same emotions. We each struggle to balance conflicting drives. It is all there in the earliest stories we have inherited from times past – the problem of free will and moral judgment, as in the stories of Adam and Eve, and the murder of Abel by his brother Cain.