January 29, 2012

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What's Wrong With the Teenage Mind?: Children today reach puberty earlier and adulthood later. The result: A lot of teenage weirdness. Alison Gopnik on how we might readjust adolescence. (ALISON GOPNIK, 1/28/12, WSJ)

The second crucial system in our brains has to do with control; it channels and harnesses all that seething energy. In particular, the prefrontal cortex reaches out to guide other parts of the brain, including the parts that govern motivation and emotion. This is the system that inhibits impulses and guides decision-making, that encourages long-term planning and delays gratification.

This control system depends much more on learning. It becomes increasingly effective throughout childhood and continues to develop during adolescence and adulthood, as we gain more experience. You come to make better decisions by making not-so-good decisions and then correcting them. You get to be a good planner by making plans, implementing them and seeing the results again and again. Expertise comes with experience. As the old joke has it, the answer to the tourist's question "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" is "Practice, practice, practice."

In the distant (and even the not-so-distant) historical past, these systems of motivation and control were largely in sync. In gatherer-hunter and farming societies, childhood education involves formal and informal apprenticeship. Children have lots of chances to practice the skills that they need to accomplish their goals as adults, and so to become expert planners and actors. The cultural psychologist Barbara Rogoff studied this kind of informal education in a Guatemalan Indian society, where she found that apprenticeship allowed even young children to become adept at difficult and dangerous tasks like using a machete.

In the past, to become a good gatherer or hunter, cook or caregiver, you would actually practice gathering, hunting, cooking and taking care of children all through middle childhood and early adolescence--tuning up just the prefrontal wiring you'd need as an adult. But you'd do all that under expert adult supervision and in the protected world of childhood, where the impact of your inevitable failures would be blunted. When the motivational juice of puberty arrived, you'd be ready to go after the real rewards, in the world outside, with new intensity and exuberance, but you'd also have the skill and control to do it effectively and reasonably safely.

In contemporary life, the relationship between these two systems has changed dramatically. Puberty arrives earlier, and the motivational system kicks in earlier too.

At the same time, contemporary children have very little experience with the kinds of tasks that they'll have to perform as grown-ups. Children have increasingly little chance to practice even basic skills like cooking and caregiving. Contemporary adolescents and pre-adolescents often don't do much of anything except go to school. Even the paper route and the baby-sitting job have largely disappeared.

The experience of trying to achieve a real goal in real time in the real world is increasingly delayed, and the growth of the control system depends on just those experiences. The pediatrician and developmental psychologist Ronald Dahl at the University of California, Berkeley, has a good metaphor for the result: Today's adolescents develop an accelerator a long time before they can steer and brake.

This doesn't mean that adolescents are stupider than they used to be. In many ways, they are much smarter. An ever longer protected period of immaturity and dependence--a childhood that extends through college--means that young humans can learn more than ever before. There is strong evidence that IQ has increased dramatically as more children spend more time in school, and there is even some evidence that higher IQ is correlated with delayed frontal lobe development.

All that school means that children know more about more different subjects than they ever did in the days of apprenticeships. Becoming a really expert cook doesn't tell you about the nature of heat or the chemical composition of salt--the sorts of things you learn in school.

But there are different ways of being smart. Knowing physics and chemistry is no help with a soufflé. Wide-ranging, flexible and broad learning, the kind we encourage in high-school and college, may actually be in tension with the ability to develop finely-honed, controlled, focused expertise in a particular skill, the kind of learning that once routinely took place in human societies. For most of our history, children have started their internships when they were seven, not 27.

Posted by at January 29, 2012 8:35 AM
  

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