The Brains of a 25-Year-Old

This morning I read a lecture by Jason M Satterfield for a course he taught called “Mind-body Medicine.” The professor was talking about various brain parts, the frontal lobes in particular, located in the front of our head just behind our foreheads. In humans, he says, the frontal lobe is particularly large compared to other animals. But it is also developmental and doesn’t fully develop until we are 25 years old. “Now, there’s a reason why teenagers act like teenagers – they don’t have fully developed frontal lobes.” He goes on to say that “our frontal lobes are responsible for delayed gratification (and for) emotions regulation.” Well now, doesn’t that explain a thing or two!

Satterfield talks about teens but consider the fact that before age 25, young people are ending their high school years and having to make choices about careers, college, possibly going into the military.  They are buying their first cars, taking on living away from home where they are expected to pay their own bills, and often choosing their life-long partners in marriage or entering a religious community.

Bernie and I married at 21. In fact, we recently celebrated our 50th anniversary which is quite a miracle considering the mental deficiency of our brains when we chose to get married.  I say that only half jokingly. I think both of us at some point looked at the other and wondered:  who is this stranger I am living with? Or even weirder: who is this stranger that I am?

These times from teen to young adult are years when many financial decision need to be made that have long range implications but are being made by brains that have trouble with the long-range concept. Parents will tell about their teens who purchase vehicles that are pieces of junk because they are “cool”. Then they spend four times what they paid for it for repair after repair. There are the kids that “have to” take the spring break trip with their friends because “they deserve it” or because “these are the times of their lives.” Meanwhile, the bucks spent mean coming up short when it is time to pay for books and supplies as the next semester begins. Credit card companies jump on the band wagon by offering great deals on credit cards to new college students. They know the money will be spent on non-essential luxuries because they know that these young people aren’t able to think long range about later payments and then they charge so much interest that the money they saved at the “sale” that enticed them to buy is surpassed.

If all of this is related to brain development, then I am not sure what a solution might be. You can’t teach a child to ride a bike before they are mentally and physically mature enough to do so. Maybe parents need to jump on that other wagon, the one that says young people seem to think short term. For example, allow young people to suffer the immediate consequences of their imperfect decisions.  If a kid’s junker car fails him, let him deal with the problems of repairs popping up two weeks after the purchase rather than protecting hum by paying for the repairs or rescuing him by buying another car. If a young person has to suffer shortage of money for fun stuff because they weren’t prepared to pay the rent when it was due, let it happen. Rather than helping them with the rent, let them negotiate with the landlord or even let them find lose the apartment. These are all short term consequences that should work for their almost-but-not-quite developed brains.

A name for these kinds of parent strategies might be “tough love” or “school of hard knocks”. During the Great Depression, everyone, young or not, had to face these problems and it led to a generation of folks who learned the lessons of postponing pleasure, of saving to pay bills or for possible hard times in the future, of conserving, preserving, reusing, repairing and making-do.  It was a generation of survivors. We may not be able to force a young adult to think long range, but we can capitalize on their ability to think short range by letting the immediate consequences of their mismanagement happen.