By Dennis Palumbo
From the pages of medical journals to feature stories on the network news, there's been a swell of media coverage the past few years 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. To the surprise of practically no one not wearing a lab coat, it's finally been demonstrated scientifically 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 devotion to high-decibel music, insistence on low-decibel mumbling, and willingness to stand in line for hours to see the midnight showing of Watchmen.
As soon as these results made national headlines, the usual social pundits weighed in: 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 mid-life brain? Perhaps the next time we embark on exhaustive, heavily-funded research into what's inside 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. We're in the middle of an economic melt-down, deluged with more-bad-news-updates constantly by the media. Not to mention the Middle East crisis, global warming, and daily bulletins about the life and travails of the OctoMom. Most adults I know are over-worked, over-stressed and generally overwhelmed by their ongoing struggles with careers, child-rearing, and relationships. They're forgetful, obsessed with their health (popping pills to an extent no teenager would even contemplate), envious of their neighbors 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 all about trying to cope.
Granted, your average teen's coping mechanisms rarely extend beyond junk food and video games.
But are adults' choices any better? Addicted to Internet porn, Gray's Anatomy, Tom Clancy novels and golf. Fretting over who just got voted off Dancing with the Stars. Running from yoga class to a "Parents Without Partners" meeting to the latest Donald Trump get-rich-quick seminar.
And, amidst all this, compulsively checking e-mails and sending text messages on their cellphones (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 pretty laudable and straightforward aims, especially when compared with the confusing and relentless demands of contemporary life with which adults have to contend. It's no wonder, then, that at the end of a hard day, most adults just want to collapse on the sofa and channel-surf.
Sartre once said that the state of man is incomprehension and rage. Okay, 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. Instead, we need to remember that people are too complex to fit neatly into categories.
And that includes teenage people.
In fact, 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. (Okay, we got one right with Obama, but still...)
My point is, I think we should give 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.
If anything, the latter is a result of brains much older, and supposedly wiser, than theirs.