Blakemore says: “Adolescence is defined as the period of life that starts with the biological, hormonal, physical changes of puberty and ends at the age at which an individual attains a stable independent role in society.”

I’m not sure I understand this definition. The onset of puberty is pretty objective, but how do we define what a “stable independent role in society” is? Isn’t that what modern society actively tries to prevent teens from having by forcing them to spend their days with high school and homework, with the only adults they know being figures who are telling them what to do?

In other words, the definition seems to say: “Adolescence starts with puberty, and ends when we adults decide it ends.”

Blakemore discusses a behavioral study in which a subject is asked to move objects around from the point-of-view of someone else. Studies show that, on average, adults are better at this task than adolescents. That is, adults make fewer errors. The conclusion is that, Blakemore states, “the ability to take into account someone else’s perspective in order to guide ongoing behavior, which is something, by the way, that we do in everyday life all the time, is still developing in mid-to-late adolescence.”

I’m not convinced this task so simply represents one’s ability to “take into account someone else’s perspective.” Nor would I imply that a lower error rate on this task necessarily correlates with better social behavior, such as the ability to control one’s anger in the face of hostility, or the mistake of perceiving someone else’s comments as personal attacks when they are not. I’m not sure these test results tell us anything useful about teenage behavior as a whole.

We could easily imagine someone practicing this task to such an extent that they attain an error rate of 5% or less. But who would argue that these people would thus behave better in emotional social situations? (And how would we define “better”?)

Blakemore goes on quote Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale:

“I would there were no age between ten and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting. … Would any but these boiled brains of nineteen and two-and-twenty hunt in this weather?”

This, to Blakemore, is evidence that adolescence is not a recent phenomenon.

Firstly, in the big scheme of human societal development, Shakespeare is quite recent. But I think it’s important to note that there is a difference between perceptions of there being an “adolescent” stage of normal human development (and that we should, as a society, take measures against it), and the notion that your own generation, and your own status within it, is the best, or at least not the worst. To think that the “young people (or any social group of which I am not a part) of today are not as skilled, or as intelligent, or as decent as me” is certainly not a new thought. What is the difference between the socially-defined stage of “adolescence” and classic human age-ism?

Blakemore goes on to discuss risk-taking and the role of the limbic system, concluding that teenagers take more risks because the rewards from the limbic system are hightened. But how do we define whether or not a task is “risky”? Does the limbic system’s rewards only respond to tasks that the rest of the brain has come to understand as “risky”? Does peer pressure make a task seem less risky? What if this has nothing to do with risk at all? We really gain nothing from this point.

Finally, Blakemore tries to relate this all to education, saying: “40% of teenagers don’t have access to secondary school education. And yet this is a period of life where the brain is particularly adaptable and malleable. It’s a fantastic opportunity for learning and creativity. So what’s sometimes seen as the problem with adolescence, heightened risk-taking, poor impulse control, self-consciousness, shouldn’t be stigmatized. It actually reflects changes in the brain that provide excellent opportunity for education and social development.”

It’s a bit of an empty statement, as we don’t know what exactly she’s defining “education” to be. Are we meant to conclude that today’s education system is doing unseen good for teenagers? Are we meant to conclude that older people lose their ability to learn because their brains aren’t developing in the same ways? Are we simply meant to feel inspired? I don’t know.

(Unrelated digression: Blakemore mentions that the prefrontal cortex is proportionally much bigger in humans than any other species. I imagine the point of mentioning this is to imply a correlation between prefrontal cortex proportional size and intelligence. But we judge how intelligent other living things are by how their behavior compares to ours. We assume we’re smarter than any species that can’t talk, or can’t solve problems in ways we can understand. But is that assumption valid? Can intelligence be plotted linearly, and therefore be easily judged with greater-than, less-than comparisons? I don’t mean to imply that I believe humans don’t have unique brain powers among all the other species on our planet. I only mean to assert that intelligence is not a simple matter of comparing abilities (or, by correlation, brain properties, like the proportional size of the prefrontal cortex), because we can only compare abilities that are within our power to understand, and for something to be beyond our intelligence does not imply that it is somehow more or less intelligent; simply that it is a different intelligence.)


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