Scrolling through Facebook this morning, I saw some heartfelt thoughts from a friend on her sadness at the division between Millennials and Boomers, and it made me think (as many things do) of the power and magic of integration — this time between the generations.
Allow me, for a minute, to go to the brain. Our wonderful Prefrontal Cortices, which give us access to empathy, long-term planning and direction, abstract thinking, delaying gratification, and so on, are still developing well into our twenties. (When exactly can vary from person to person, with men maturing more slowly on average. Some say 25 is a safe bet, but it can be anywhere from 21 to 30.) The connections between the emotional centers (the amygdala and limbic system) are gaining in stability, and we have a far greater ability to manage our emotional responses as we enter our mid- to late twenties. Decision-making becomes more rational, empathic, and thoughtful.
But here’s the kicker–this time of development is also one of our most brilliant. The ability to make astonishing connections, come up with new ideas, innovate, and think creatively is high. This is likely because the brain’s grey matter increases during childhood and peaks in early adolescence. Part of what we know as prefrontal cortex development is actually a function of this decrease through a process known as synaptic pruning, where the brain literally gets rid of connections that aren’t used, as well as the laying down of the myelin sheath, which strengthens neural connections so they are stronger and more reliable. In other words, young people’s brains have a ton of potential in terms of ways of thinking, while the more mature adult brain has done its pruning and a great deal of myelination, and has its patterns of thought reinforced over years of use. (See neuroplasticity for more on this subject.)
I’ve seen this in action directly with my own millennial, currently a senior in college and a Philosophy major, like his mom. As we talk about what he is reading and pursuing, I find myself struggling to keep up, and not just because I don’t remember what I read 30 years ago. Even when he explains what he is thinking completely and carefully, there is a quickness of connection lacking in me, one that I know I had at his age. I remember being able to dance at the top of those tall trees, making subtle and astonishing arguments and parsing through a dense paper seeking truth.
My brain honestly works differently now. That quick lightness of thought and connection has been replaced with–I think the best word for it is–wisdom. Part of this wisdom is an increased aspect of intuition (which we believe is a system of interrelated factors that give us below-conscious-processing insight and knowledge), arising from what we have experienced. At this age, my brain can find patterns between the experiences of 54 years, quickly having a sense of what may be going on. Researchers call this “contextual intuition.” I think of it as a storehouse of micro-memories that the brain accesses below conscious awareness to help us recognize patterns. This aspect of intuition explains why a doctor who has spent 20 years treating tropical diseases may see a new patient and immediately “know” what is ailing them, while a new intern needs to look up all the symptoms.
My brain is also more patient at this age. I find myself willing to wait to see how things play out, to trust that I don’t have to know everything right now, and even that there are many things I will never know. The adolescent brain is on a track to make sense of everything–this is its job, after all. But not all is readily apparent, and wisdom shows us that sometimes patience is the best strategy, knowing what needs to unfold will unfold with time.
Wisdom also has given me a better sense of when I am operating from my emotional center and when I am thinking things through, while the adolescent and young adult brain can be carried away emotionally without realizing it. And I should add that learning NOT to say or write things when I my amygdala has been triggered unfortunately did not happen when I magically turned 25. I am still learning this, but it’s easier and I have more awareness of what is happening than when I was in my teens and early 20s.
Lastly, my brain is more integrated. This is strictly a hypothesis, but from observing my own son, his friends, and others’ children, it seems to me that the prefrontal cortex develops somewhat asymmetrically. In the right hemisphere, we have empathy and human relationship skills, while in the left we have more of the planning and sequencing aspects. My own left hemisphere was on a bit of delay–I didn’t get focus and direction until about age 27, while I had empathy and concern for others from a much younger age. My son was the opposite–he was able to plan and execute from early adolescence, but understanding others begin to develop a bit later. Wisdom–and great leadership–comes with the ability to do both.
And so, once again, as I said above, I find myself thinking about integration. I am astonished and want to nurture all the brilliance of our world’s young people. After all, these are the brains figuring out how to make biodegradable plastic out of banana peels and clean up the oceans with a giant vacuum cleaner. They deserve our respect. Yay young brains!
AND, I want to give due respect to the wisdom of the older brain. Nothing can replicate true context, patience, emotional regulation and dual-hemisphere processing. It has to be experienced for oneself, and grown over the course of a lifetime.
So why have a war? When the young brains feel honored and the older ones respected, we can partner in leadership and together make an even bigger difference in the world.
For more on this topic, see Dr. Dan Siegel’s book Brainstorm: the power and purpose of the teenage brain.