Adulthood & The Human Brain

I have been bothered for many years with the fact that we draw exact lines across the continuum of human aging, to define for societal values what is regarded as a person having reached adulthood.  These “lines in the sand” vary across the globe, depending on each culture’s history and values.  Here in the USA, such lines tend to be left to each state, when it comes to such matters as the minimum age at which one may marry, at what age may one consent to having sex, the minimum age to consume alcoholic beverages, driving and so on.  Given that these various age limits vary considerably and with many exceptions across the nation, it is clear that these have little at all to do with the capacity and capability of the brain to make adult decisions.

Most such laws are predicated on “religious” norms, historical cultural practice, and better yet, rarely, are evidence-based.  For instance, there is ample evidence that young girls becoming pregnant put them at very increased risk for themselves and the babies.  Nationally there is a movement to raise the minimum age for smoking tobacco to 21, and it goes without saying there are decades of evidence to support that if we want our youth to have a chance at a maximum life span.

In many tribal societies there are rites of passage – ritual initiation – that marks a person’s traversing the local customs of moving from childhood to young adulthood, and then to joining the elders later on.  Clearly we have no such customs in our “advanced” society.

And then there are the matters that really bother me in particular, relating to criminality, which “kid” gets sentenced as an adult, and the big one for me is the age at which we allow our youth to enter the military and fight, become wounded and die for our causes (usually fostered by politicians who generally have never served in the armed forces.)

Research in recent years has shown that the human brain does not really reach maturity until around the age of 25 (or even beyond for some, and it varies between sexes it seems) in terms of its ability to cognitively differentiate, to critically analyze, its situation and the complexity of factors that in theory should append to various decisions, daily ones and life decisions.  Anyone who is well up into adulthood can clearly recall the many stupid things we did when 18, and then well into our early 20’s.  I damn sure did my share!  And yet, still send out youth off to war.  I have to question whether this is not one of the higher forms of child abuse, really.

I clearly recall being 23, going off with my gold 2nd Lieutenant bars on my shoulders to fly jets in the Air Force.  Well, that was interrupted, but at the time I never gave a thought to the fact that I would possibly be flying in Viet Nam.  I was just on “auto pilot,” following a program that was modeled on my own father’s WW2 action.  There was no cognition of risk, of why, of consequences physically, mentally or morally.

So how could we do it differently I wonder?  Should we use some additional testing to determine the level of development of the young person’s brain with respect to making adult discriminations? Or should we keep the younger person in the rear echelon until the age of say 25? I don’t know, but I do know that our society needs to really think about this, if we are to move out of the shadow of the Dark Ages upon which the present notion of adulthood thrives.

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