The adolescent brain, being “crazy by design”, is a critical evolutionary adaptation that has built up over thousands of generations, and is essential to our species survival. Adolescence forces young people in every generation to think beyond their own self-imposed limitations and exceed their parents’ aspirations1.
Adolescents are not just over-grown children, or immature adults. They have a character all their own, not necessarily something easy for either them or others to live with, but a process that does turn most of those dependent children one day into autonomous adults. Research starting in the late 1990s shows that, contrary to the thinking of less than ten years ago, the adolescent brain is as much a ‘work in progress’ as that of the toddler2. It used to be thought that a child’s brain was fully developed by the age of twelve with adolescence being explained as a sort of anomaly prompted by hormonal changes associated with sexual development. However, research now going on at the National Institute of Health in the U.S. using functional MRI brain scans of 1,800 normal adolescents every six months over a ten-year period, are amazing scientists3. These ‘time sequenced’ scans reveal that significant numbers of the neural connections made during the first dozen years of life are, quite involuntarily, broken during the teenage years, with the scans showing many of them struggling to make new connections. “That’s just like my daughter”, said a troubled mother, “It is as if her internal telephone system is consistently dialling wrong numbers”. Literally this is what adolescence is all about.
For the first dozen or so years of life children’s brains grow fastest if they have the opportunity to mimic the stimulating behaviour of adults. In the long run, however, that is not enough for in a world of continuous change, to think and act just as your parents did could be disastrous. Adolescence is a kind of a ‘biological shock treatment’ that forces children to break away from relying on being told what to do, to working things out for themselves4. This urge to take risks is ‘time limited’. If adults see adolescence as a threat that needs to be countered by giving young people more and more formal instruction, then we will have only ourselves to blame if they emerge years later as dependent adults, over-schooled but under-educated5.
The origins of all this, it seems, goes back 60,000 years to when our ancestors were forced to walk away from the savannah of Africa if they were to survive a massive climatic change and endless famines6. Imagine for a moment that you were the child of one of the first families fleeing into the forest. You had been born to parents unsure of their new surroundings and anxious to clear a small patch of ground to make a home. They were fearful this wasn’t the lifestyle they had been prepared for by their own parents. They worried about you, and sought to keep their children near to them. As you grew older you looked disparagingly at your parents’ lifestyle and shocked them when you told them this wouldn’t be good enough for you. You were going to ‘move on’. They tried to frighten you by saying that would be terribly dangerous, for you couldn’t know what was on the other side of the river, or mountain. “So what?”, you might have replied, “I’m not sticking around here. It’s boring: I’m off.” Leaving your siblings behind, you set out. Not all youngsters thinking like that survived, but you did, and you got to the other side of the mountain. There you found another successful young rebel. You settled down, becoming much like your own parents; you mated and produced children of your own. Then one day one of your children said, like you had done to your parents, “I’m not sticking around here. I’m off”. So, generation after generation, it was most often those who combined the skills of their parents, with the rebelliousness of youth, who were the ones that survived. And in two and a half thousand generations our species has covered the Earth, with each new generation walking some three or four miles further into the wilderness7.
The adolescent youngster sitting in today’s classroom, or brooding in their bedroom, conforms exactly to the same prototype that desperately wanted to be out there on the frontier. Adolescents are predisposed to take risks which cautious, older people are not willing to face. To them adult lifestyles seem dull and compromised for the world of the young is essentially new, fresh and challenging, while the adult’s world is full of artificial constraints. But survival for today’s adolescent is not about being alert to a multitude of stimuli; instead it’s learning how to keep its head down, and its nose on an academic grinding stone8. It’s not much fun. It may make sense to an adult expecting a younger generation to ‘keep the wealth flowing’, but it’s often nonsensical to the adolescent; their cry is “Give me land, lots of land under starry skies above / Don’t fence me in, let me wander over yonder / Till I see the mountains rise”9.
Far too many non-conforming adolescents, youngsters who could well go on to be the most creative members of future society, find modern life increasingly difficult; some drop out completely, and find little support at a stage when they need it most. Others try to bend themselves too far to meet the over ambitious expectations of school or parents. Both can end in disaster, even death10. Suicide is becoming a frightening by-product of adolescence. An eighteen-year-old girl, Anne Marie, the anticipated star pupil of her high school in the west of Ireland in 2003, felt she could never meet all those expectations. She worked herself into depression, and attempted suicide three times. Rescued by psychologists after she had agreed never to attempt an exam again she wrote a lengthy poem called “Lost” which concludes;
“I wonder: Why does life have to be so hard? / Why do people have to feel so much pain?
It’s so unfair, it’s so draining and confusing. / I’m tired of fighting; I’m tired of fighting with myself.
I just want it to stop11. Thesis 90: 27th August 2006