You Want Mind-Blowing? Look At The Middle-Aged Brain

On the pages of medical journals and the cover of Time magazine, in feature stories on network news and nightly jokes in Jay Leno’s monologue, there’s been a swell of media coverage this past year concerning “the teenage brain.”

Despite sounding like the title of Hollywood’s latest horror-movie blockbuster, the phrase actually refers to recent neurological research on adolescent brain chemistry. It’s finally been demonstrated empirically (to the surprise of practically no one not wearing a lab coat) that the teenage brain is different from that of a mature adult.

According to the data, these differences explain the average teen’s inclination to stay up late, sleep until noon and exhibit extreme mood swings (for example, from sullen and defiant to really sullen and defiant). Some researchers have even blamed these brain differences for the adolescent’s inexplicable devotion to high-decibel music, low-decibel mumbling and the piercing of unlikely body parts.

As soon as these results made national headlines, the usual social pundits–bored with Iraq, the Supreme Court nominee and Jessica Simpson’s divorce–began hitting the TV talk-show circuit. This new research, they claimed, clearly suggested that we should ban teen driving and even raise the voting age. After all, we now had proof positive that today’s teens are simply too erratic to be entrusted with such responsibilities.

This may be. But what about the midlife brain? Perhaps the next time we embark on exhaustive, heavily funded research into what’s in the human skull, we should focus our efforts on the average middle-aged person–because if my friends and I are at all representative, I’d argue that whatever’s going on in our collective brains is equally suspect.

Though not without good reason. Most adults I know are overworked, over-stressed and generally overwhelmed from their daily struggles with careers, child-rearing and relationships. They’re forgetful, continually on a diet, obsessed with their health (popping pills to an extent no teenager would even contemplate), envious of their neighbors and co-workers, and always–always–sleep-deprived.

Frankly, even on a good day, our brains are nothing to write home about. It’s everything we can do to keep our complicated, must-have Starbucks coffee orders straight in our heads.

I think it’s too easy to blame all this on brain chemistry. The truth is, life is hard, no matter how old you are. Whether you’re worried about making the track team or paying the mortgage, about fitting in with the cool kids or impressing your new boss, it’s about trying to cope.

Granted, your average teen’s coping mechanisms may rarely extend beyond junk food and video games. But are adults’ choices any better? Addicted to Internet porn, “Desperate Housewives,” Tom Clancy novels and golf. Running from their yoga class to a Parents Without Partners meeting to the latest Donald Trump get-rich-quick seminar. And, between all this, compulsively checking e-mails and sending text messages on their cellphones (all while nursing fantasies of winning the lottery, or running off to Tahiti with the office manager).

Let’s face it, teens have just two basic goals: having sex and getting into a good college. Both are pretty laudable and straightforward aims, especially when compared with the confusing and relentless demands of contemporary life with which grown-ups have to contend. It’s no wonder that at the end of the day, most adults just want to collapse on the sofa and channel-surf.

Sartre once said that the state of modern man is incomprehension and rage. OK, maybe he was a bit of a Gloomy Gus. But isn’t the bewilderment and struggle to which he alludes true at times for all of us, particularly at certain crucial stages in our life?

As a psychotherapist, I see daily the unfortunate consequences of assigning a diagnostic label to practically every kind of behavior under the sun. We need to remember that people are too complex to fit neatly into categories. Otherwise, we risk turning every character trait, coping mechanism and idiosyncrasy into a pathology. Let’s not use these latest clinical data on adolescent brain chemistry, no matter how compelling, to do the same to teens–to reduce to a syndrome the myriad ways they struggle to cope with a very difficult developmental stage in a complex and often contradictory world.

And before we start debating whether teens should be allowed to drive and vote, we’d better be able to defend letting us adults do so. It’s not as if our record in either of these endeavors is anything to brag about.

In other words, give the kids a break. They’re not responsible for the way their brains develop, any more than they are for the world in which they have to grow up. The latter is the result of brains much older, and supposedly wiser, than theirs.

Article written by Dennis Palumbo, first appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Monday, January 30, 2006.

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