14 September 2007

Psychological Neoteny and Leaving Adolescence

Adolescence in modern societies is largely an artifact of current childraising and educational techniques. Adolescents are protected from most real world responsibilities, sequestered in schools with others of their age group until their early twenties, and receive minimal supervision and guidance in the acquisition of practical real world skills from "adults" who may or may not have gained a level of wisdom and judgment from their own encounters with the adult world of responsibility.

Current baby-boomers are the first generation to have been raised under the new, pampered, age-isolated and work-restricted regime of child-raising. Baby-boomers have raised their own children under a similar-but-more-so regime of age isolation and sheltering from responsibility. A third generation is currently being raised into this regime.

Besides poor child-raising and a counter-productive educational system, in their quest to become responsible adults, modern youth must also battle against a "youth culture" that encourages binge drinking, psychoactive drug use, and other acts of "rebellion" which may have long-term consequences for their ability to function optimally in a world of personal responsibility.

In earlier America, youth were not treated as adolescents. This online book, The Underground History of American Education, provides an extensive look at earlier educational practises in America. Joseph Kett's Rites of Passage likewise provides an illuminating look at what the education and life of American youths was like prior to the wars of the 20th century. Adolescence as we know it was largely unknown in those times. It is an artifact of modern practises.

Dr. Robert Epstein has looked at this issue extensively, and has written the book The Case Against Adolescence. Epstein has come to the conclusion that adolescents are able to learn most if not all adult competencies and responsibilities--if society would give them a chance. But that is not likely, given current attitudes, educational methods and laws, and childraising techniques--combined with a destructive and corporate controlled "youth culture."

A final complication and confusion for many, is the fact that parts of the human brain do not fully develop, myelinate, and neurologically prune until the mid-twenties. What does this mean? It means that the brains of youth are still "plastic" up until their twenties--still developing. They will lack some forebrain function as youth, which may serve them in good stead at a later age, if they are given the proper training and guidance in the meantime--and do not damage their own neural development through unwise excesses of psychoactive drugs and alcohol.

Then what is "psychological neoteny?" It is merely the end result, in adulthood, of not having learned the lessons of judgment and responsibility in youth that are necessary to live a responsible life of personal competence. A psychological neotenate is a victim of combined dysfunctionalities of society, parents, educational systems, and age-segregation with sheltering from responsiblity.

I refer to psychological neotenates as "lifelong incompetents." The reason for the "lifelong" descriptor is that these "adults" are beyond the age of maximal plasticity of the brain. They have largely lost their chance to grow into responsiblity and competence. Is that an absolute barrier to growth? No. The human brain retains some ability to modify itself, retains stem cells and glial function, well into maturity and beyond. But the youthful brain, with its ongoing myelination and active pruning, remains significantly more plastic until the mid-twenties.

Never has western culture needed competence from its youth more than at this time. The west is being challenged on several fronts--ideologically, demographically, spiritually (recall that I am an atheist, so the concept of "spirituality" will be a broad one), and on current and near-future battlefields.

In North American cultures, and in the UK, there is a general failure of competence-formation among a large proportion of youth. That is the report from large employers, it is the complaint of industries wanting to establish plants inside the US, it is the tale of credit statistics and bankruptcy courts, it is the story of youth and young adults staying with their parents into their twenties and thirties. One must look for the threads of this particular tapestry, because of the rapidity of its flux.

Children are not a Blank Slate. Yet many of the potential abilities and competencies of children and youth, are latent. They must be developed within the proper time windows. If child-rearing and educational practises are not geared toward encouraging development of these latent competencies within the proper time windows, the child will suffer in later life from a lack of these competencies. Of all the educational systems of the world, only the Montessori and similar approaches, acknowledge this critical developmental sequence.

Later youth and early adulthood, with the late development of the forebrain, absolutely requires exposure to multiple philosophies, spiritual approaches, political ideologies, and professional/vocational styles. A failure to expose youth and young adults to a diversity of ideas is the equivalent of an academic lobotomy--an indoctrination or brainwashing rather than an education. We see this academic lobotomy practise commonly at modern universities, in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.

Fortunately, there are alternative paths through life, apart from the dysfunctional educational systems and universities of many western societies. Paths where children are allowed to develop competencies and responsibilities commensurate with their growing abilities.

I will develop this idea more later.

Bonus: Epstein's essay "Let's Abolish High School."

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Blogger drrobertepstein.com said...

Marvelous blog, but you're wrong about the teen brain. Please see my recent article, "The Myth of the Teen Brain," from Scientific American: http://drrobertepstein.com/pdf/Epstein%20-%20THE%20MYTH%20OF%20THE%20TEEN%20BRAIN%20-%20Scientific%20American%20Mind%20-%204-8-07.pdf

Saturday, 15 September, 2007  
Blogger al fin said...

Thanks for the comment, Robert.

I read your SA article some time ago, and re-read it tonight. Nothing in your article substantively contradicts the essential facts presented in the above posting.

The brains of youth are highly plastic, not completely myelinated. This plasticity continues beyond the middle twenties but at a substantially reduced rate.

The superior learning capacity of teenagers and pre-teens, over adults, in many areas, attests to the superior plasticity of their brains.

Nothing in the above posting suggests that the teen brain is inferior in any way. But if you are to maintain that the teen brain is complete and finished, you must explain, clarify, and support that position much better than your short SA article does.

Thanks again.

Saturday, 15 September, 2007  

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