Monday, April 5, 2010

Puberty Doesn't Make You Stupid

Once again, professional journalists leave professionalism at the door to reinforce adult prejudices and upset young people. Time has recently run an article called Does Puberty Make You Stupid? Lessons from Mice, about a recent study that seems to indicate that teens in the throes of puberty are not as good as older teens at basic puzzle tasks. The article isn't exactly clear at what kind of activity pubertal teens are so inept at, mixing research on pubescent mice and typical associations made about the so-called hapless nature of teens into one hodge-podge of speculation.

Could this article have been written with less tact? Could it have possibly been written any more disrespectfully? Can't we call "stupid" here a judgment call? I hardly believe the research on mice puzzle solution times translates into "pubescent teens are stupid" as the thrust of this article seems to be suggesting. And one can justify an article angle of this type on the grounds that it's supposed to be humorous only if they're then prepared to take the litmus test--if we change "puberty" to "being black" is it still so funny? If not, then it's not justifiable.

Up until 20 years ago, scientists believed that the human brain was largely mature by puberty. Apparently, they had failed to notice the irrational behavior and flaky thinking of teenagers. Now, of course, we know that the human brain continues to undergo serious restructuring well into the 20s.
The research may be onto something a little less pedestrian than this obvious pandering to the parents. You don't suppose the fact that teens are treated like mice has anything to do with the fact that their behaviors are so similar when it comes to puberty? Stick an adult in a cage and restrict their movements to the extent that teens are experiencing these days, and let's see an adult not begin to behave "flaky."

Sophisticated brain-scan studies by Jay Giedd at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) have shown dramatic changes throughout the teenage years as excess gray matter is pruned from the prefrontal cortex — the seat of higher-order thinking and making judgments (like not smoking weed right before your chemistry exam). Meanwhile, behavioral studies have shown what every parent already knows: teens have poor control over impulses and a tendency toward risk taking.
As a former psychology student, I can at least confirm that excess neuron proliferation and pruning happens throughout life. Synapses that are no longer being used are constantly dying off and being replaced by ones that are. While it is correct that teens are more risk-taking than adults, why does this always necessarily have to be a bad thing in the adult media? Do they want complacent youth who never question authority or take risks? Are not entrepreneurs risk takers? If teens are going to be greater risk takers, the expression of their risk taking--whether it inspires them become entrepreneurs or provokes them to drive offensively or do drugs has almost everything to do with how adults have raised them. If the teen is doing something to put themselves in jeopardy, don't blame their biology, blame the parents, blame society.

But in a magazine whose readership is notably adults, don't expect that to happen any time soon.

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