A long flat stretch of Oregon road a few miles east of Pendleton on Interstate 84 temps young drivers to speed. Years ago, while traveling to visit relatives in Eastern Washington, I was so compelled. I was in my early 20s. I remember hearing the sound of my beating heart pounding inside my head as I pressed the accelerator to the floor. My hands were clenched on the steering wheel, and my eyes wide open in anticipation. It took me three tries during that one trip, but I finally succeeded pushing the speedometer past 100 mph, despite my extreme anxiety and my car rattling and shaking intensely.
Clearly, this wasn’t the most intelligent decision I’ve ever made. And 20 years later I feel no desire to attempt such stupidity again. As I ponder the many decisions that I made during my adolescence and throughout my early 20s, two questions come to mind: First, how is it possible that I’m still alive? Second, why do we make so many awful and dangerous decisions when we’re young? Young adults are notorious for risky, thrill-seeking and dangerous behavior. I’m not the only youngster who snuck out at night, drove too fast or, well, never mind. You get the idea. Why do kids do these things?
This is not a new question, and it has been asked for as long as human beings have had teenagers. According to a recent article in National Geographic, brain scans taken in the 1990s indicate that our brains don’t fully mature until our mid-20s. So it seems that one reason we act like idiots when we’re younger is because our brains just aren’t done forming. According to the article:
“The slow and uneven developmental arc revealed by these imaging studies offers an alluringly pithy explanation for why teens may do stupid things like drive at 113 miles an hour, aggrieve their ancientry, and get people (or get gotten) with child: They act that way because their brains aren’t done! You can see it right there in the scans!”
A few researchers, however, are now taking a different view of the teen brain. Instead, they view adolescent brain development within the adaptive-evolutionary framework. The teenage years consist of the difficult transition from the safety of a home environment to the complex real world. The dangerous and silly adventures parents witness are underpinned by behaviors perfectly suited (i.e. adapted) for this transition.
But here is the problem, according to the article:
“This view will likely sit better with teens. More important, it sits better with biology’s most fundamental principle, that of natural selection. Selection is hell on dysfunctional traits. If adolescence is essentially a collection of them—angst, idiocy, and haste; impulsiveness, selfishness, and reckless bumbling—then how did those traits survive selection? They couldn’t—not if they were the period’s most fundamental or consequential features.”
The answer is this: There are upsides to the dispositions that lead to a teen’s poor behavior. Thrill seeking may lead to dangerous actions, but it can also lead to the youngster trying something new or meeting new people. Taking risks at this age may be more advantageous than at any other age. Young adults also benefit by seeking the validation and company of their peer group:
“Yet teens gravitate toward peers for another, more powerful reason: to invest in the future rather than the past. We enter a world made by our parents. But we will live most of our lives, and prosper (or not) in a world run and remade by our peers. Knowing, understanding, and building relationships with them bears critically on success. Socially savvy rats or monkeys, for instance, generally get the best nesting areas or territories, the most food and water, more allies, and more sex with better and fitter mates. And no species is more intricately and deeply social than humans are.”
This is a fun and interesting article, but I’m not completely sold on this explanation, yet. As mentioned earlier, selection is hell on dysfunctional traits. I’m not convinced that this explanation provides a clear picture of how the catalogued propensities overcome selective forces. As the article mentions, the 15-25 year-old age group dies from accidents at a very high rate. I’d like to see more scientists comment on subject.
That said, even if this is the best explanation for a young person’s behavior, our children will always be a source of stress and puzzlement to us – and a source of inspiration.