Is Adolesence a Myth?

Recently, I have been studying neuroscience. Yes, I am interested in the field of neurolinguistics. As a background, I took an introductory class in general, organic, and biochemistry in undergrad, and apparently did very well, because, even though I was not a chemistry major, the professor still listed me as a tutor for the class next semester. As I started studying neuroscience, I realized that it was nothing more than applying the chemistry I learned in undergrad to the brain. So, I dug out my college chemistry textbook, and purchased an advanced biochemistry book just in case there might be some information I didn’t learn in undergrad that is important. Thus, have been enjoying reading this undergraduate neuroscience textbook during lunch hour at work. I have not written on the topic much yet, since I want to make sure I understand the field before I go blogging about certain issues in the neuroscience of language. When I do talk about neuroscience, as I will in this post, I want to make sure to be able to back up what I am saying by littering the post with links to scholarly and popular articles by neuroscientists, so that I am not saying anything that is unsubstantiated.

I was surprised when I ran across this book called The Myth of Adolescence. I am not going to get involved in the exegetical issues at this point, although many people know how I feel about the “Biblical Manhood” stuff [most of which is ironic, because it is anything but “Biblical”], and because I only had time to read certain portions of the book, but I did want to point out that the notion that adolescence is a myth can be contradicted with our own eyes. MRI’s show a clear period of development of the prefrontal cortex during the time we call “adolescence.” Not only that, but there are connections between this development of the prefrontal cortex and neurological disorders such as schizophrenia. These are simple facts, and to deny them is to contradict what we see with our own eyes.

However, one of the interesting features of the brain is the relationship between nature and nurture. While this area of the brain is one of the last to fully develop, *how* it is going to develop is something that needs to be discussed. One particular article that deals with the development of the brain in early childhood and adolescence puts it very well:

As articulated by several investigators (Ansari and Karmil-off-Smith, 2002;Cicchetti and Cohen, 1995;Gottlieb and Halpern, 2002; Johnson et al., 2002; Karmiloff-Smith et al., 2004; Rutter and Sroufe, 2000; Sameroff and Mackenzie, 2003; Thomas and Karmiloff-Smith, 2002; Peterson, 2003), the structure of the brain at any time is a product of interactions between genetic, epigenetic, and environmental factors (‘‘environmental’’ taken broadly as including both the outside environment and the internal physiological milieu). Stresses placed on the developing individual by a mismatch between his or her capacities and demands placed by the environment will result in compensatory physiological responses and behaviors that in time may affect brain structures. This can be part of a normal learning process, or, if the mismatch is too severe, can result in pathology. Influences of these compensations
upon developmental trajectories may include a complete normalization, or only a partial return. The compensations
themselves may even trigger environmental reactions that further divert the developmental trajectory from what
would have been expected. It is not possible to determine ex post facto from a neuroimaging study which features are
related to the initial perturbation or genetic anomaly and which to downstream effects—the ‘‘inverse solution’’
problem, as reviewed by (Courchesne, 1994).

The problem here is great, because it is difficult to know whether how the brain ends up developing during adolescence is a result of the physiology of the brain, or a result of the environment [most likely, it is a combination of these things], it is difficult to say that the brain “causes” certain behaviors. This is crucial, because the development of the prefrontal cortex deals with issues such as risk vs reward. For example, a person might desire to go a hundred miles and hour in a car to experience the thrill, but a brain with a mature prefrontal cortex will decline that option recognizing that the risk is too high, and, [if you are thinking Biblically] that it would violate what God has said. It is this kind of area of the brain that is in heavy development during adolescence. The question then becomes whether influences from stimuli such as society can affect the way in which the brain develops during the time period of adolescence. I think the answer is clearly in the affirmative. That means that societies such as our own where morality is relativistic will have a profound effect on the development of the brain during this time period.

However, although society has a profound impact, one must also consider the role of the church, and the role of parents in the development of the child’s brain during this time. Yes, it is hard to change what the child’s peers are doing, and what society tells them they should be doing. However, parents and the church can challenge children during this time to grow and learn how to think about the consequences of their behavior, not only in this life, but in the life to come. However, we also must add the stern warning that I quoted earlier:

Stresses placed on the developing individual by a mismatch between his or her capacities and demands placed by the environment will result in compensatory physiological responses and behaviors that in time may affect brain structures. This can be part of a normal learning process, or, if the mismatch is too severe, can result in pathology.

It is always difficult if you are a teacher to know how much stress is too much stress. As we are teaching children during this stage of development, we must remember that we have to give them challenges they can handle. That means that parents have to know their children. To demand that every child develop in exactly the same way at the same speed is suicide. That is why it requires wisdom to know exactly how to train your child in such a way that he is challenged but not overwhelmed.

All of this is perfectly consistent with scripture. The one thing I did see in the book is the way in which the author tried to understand the way the authors of scripture understood the stages of life, usually with a tripartite division of childhood, early adulthood, and adulthood [again, the hermeneutics of doing such, and then imposing them directly on our society is questionable]. The problem is, exactly how they understood *those* stages is up for grabs. For example, in the book of Proverbs, you have someone who is considered a נער, that is, a youth, who, nevertheless, is tempted by an adulteress [Proverbs 5:15-23] and has a wife [Proverbs 7:7-23]. And yet, the author still has to warn the son of the dangers of folly. They might have called this “young adulthood,” but the situation sounds very similar to what we call “adolescence.” The brain is still vulnerable to the kind of rash judgments associated with adolescence, and yet, he certainly would not be considered a child. It is also helpful to remember that, at this time, you did not leave your father’s house once you got married. As I said before, one of the problems with patriarchy is that the father usually wasn’t the patriarch in this society-It was usually the grandfather, or the great-grandfather if he was still alive. Hence, he would still be under the tutelage and instruction of his father, even after marriage. Again, knowing something about the background and culture of the time is very important in understanding even what people meant by this tripartite division of life.

However, what it does indicate is that his father and mother did not see fit to have his son simply go with the flow. He got involved in his life, taught him, and gave him challenges he could handle that would grow him. Not only that, the people of God also took a vested interest [especially since this would, in all probability, this man would be their next king]. The ability to train a child with patience, gradually challenging him with things that are only slightly beyond his current capacity is crucial to avoiding the current *effects* of adolescence. Adolescence is real, but the behavior of someone during adolescence is something that is a result of several things, especially when this child is a Christian and has the problem of desiring to serve Christ, but the problem of remaining sin as well. Our sin nature, the lack of development of this area of the brain, our society, and our peers will all play a role in the resultant behavior during this time of life. The key is, as always, to encounter this time of life with wisdom. Unfortunately, people who simply dismiss adolescence as a “myth” are in danger of not doing exactly that. The brain [especially the child’s brain] is very plastic, and can change. However, as with all issues of neuroplasticity, it requires patience as the brain learns and develops new skills. It is the same way with the kind of skills that develop during adolescence. It is very dangerous, therefore, to force a fifteen year old boy to be a thirty year old adult man. It, instead, requires patience and hard work on the part of both the parent and the child to deal with the kinds of skills necessary to the development of this part of the brain. Of course, that is not new to anyone reading scripture.


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