How the woes and existential problems of young Arabs can be explained by development psychology

“When you have your own home, you can then do whatever you like” This is the familiar cry of parents in the Middle East as well as other Eastern countries trying to explain to the twenty somethings living with them, why they can’t have the life they want.

Developmental psychologists, neuroscientists and clinicians have an interesting and elegant explanation for why millions of millennials still living at home are increasingly seeking independence. It also applies to a wide range of behavior, from sudden changes in mood, fear of commitment, to the common anxieties and insecurities that accompany this widening demographic in cultures where living alone is taboo.

The idea is that there are two different neural and functional systems that interact to turn children into adults. The developmental relationship between those two systems has changed in contemporary times, and that, in turn, has profoundly changed what it means to be a millennial in the Middle East.

First, there is a motivational and emotional system that is very closely linked to the biological and chemical changes of puberty. This is what turns placid ten-year-olds, safe in the protected immaturity of childhood, into restless, exuberant, emotionally intense teenagers, then to adults desperate to attain every goal, fulfill every desire, and experience every sensation. And in youth, the most important goal of all is to get the respect of your peers. Recent studies show that young people aren’t reckless because they underestimate risks, but because they overestimate rewards, especially social rewards, or rather that they find rewards more rewarding than 40 year olds do — things like the incomparable intensity of first love, the never to be recaptured glory of the high-school football goal, happen in younger adults for a reason.

As psychologist Alice Gopnik put it “In youth you want things, and then in middle-age you want to want them.”

The second system is a control system that can channel and harness all that seething energy. The pre-frontal cortex reaches out to guide and control other parts of the brain. This is the system that inhibits impulses and guides decision-making. This control system depends much more on learning than the motivational system. You get to make better decisions by making not so good decisions and then correcting them. You get to be a good planner by making plans, implementing them and seeing the results again and again. Expertise comes with experience.

This combination of an emotional system capable of making us want things, and a control system that inhibits our impulses and grows through experiences that we go through, creating a feedback loop is echoed by developmental and evolutionary geneticist Jim Noonan. He argues that our ability to explore and create as adults comes as a result of our dual ability to imagine goals happening and from experience in making those goals happen.

“Think of a tool,” says Noonan. “If you can use it well and have imagination, you think of more applications for it.” As you think of more ways to use the tool, you imagine more goals it can help you accomplish.

In the distant evolutionary past, in fact, even in the recent historical past, these two systems were in sync. Most childhood education involved formal and informal apprenticeships.

Alison Gopnik, a child-development psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, argues that children had lots of chances to practice exactly the skills that they would need to accomplish their goals as adults, and so to become expert planners and actors.

“To become a good gatherer or hunter, cook or caregiver, you would actually practice gathering, hunting, cooking and taking care of children all through middle-childhood and early adolescence — tuning up the wiring you’d need as an adult. But you’d do all that under expert adult supervision and in the protected world of childhood where the impact of your inevitable failures would be blunted.”

When the motivational juice of puberty kicked in, you’d be ready to go after the real rewards with new intensity and exuberance, but you’d also have the skill and control to do it effectively and reasonably safely.

“We stop nursing roughly a year and a half sooner than gorillas and chimps, and then take a far slower path to puberty — about a decade, compared with the three to five years typical for gorillas and chimps. As a result, we have an unmatched period of protected “play” in which to learn exploration’s rewards.”

Gopnik continues to argue that in contemporary life, the relationship between these two systems has changed. For reasons that are somewhat mysterious but most likely biological, puberty is kicking in at an earlier and earlier age. The motivational system kicks in with it.

But the problem is that at the same time, contemporary children have very little experience with the kinds of tasks that they’ll have to perform as grown-ups. Children have increasingly little chance to even practice such basic skills as cooking and care-giving. In fact, contemporary adolescents and preadolescents often don’t do much of anything except go to school. The experience of trying to achieve a real goal in real time in the real world is increasingly delayed, and the development of the control system depends on just those experiences. This meant that the control system responsible for inhibiting the wild ambitions of youth remains underdeveloped well into our late teenage years. The developmental psychologist Ron Dahl has a nice metaphor for the result

“The adolescents develop a gas pedal and accelerator a long time before they get steering and brakes.”

The increasing emphasis on schooling means that children know more about more different subjects than they ever did in the days of apprenticeships. Becoming smart in history and chemistry is no help with a soufflé. While it is true that what makes us good at exploring is the not the urge to explore but of the ability, not just the motivation but the means. As Noonan puts it

“Before you can act on the urge, you need the tools or traits that make exploration possible.”

However wide-ranging, flexible and broad-based learning may actually be in tension with the ability to develop controlled, focused expertise in a particular skill. This continues into our University days and post graduation days.

Of course, the old have always complained about the young, and vice versa. But an explanation as to why young adults may exert this rebellious attitude as adolescents may lie in something our genetic coding has been doing for millions of years.

Scientists suspected for quite some time, that life started on Earth about four billion years ago. The early life forms were primitive microbes with a basic set of genes for the basic tasks required to stay alive. They passed down those basic genes to their offspring through billions of generations. But none of those microbes had genes proteins we have today like toenail keratin or the dopamine surging in your brain.

It turns out that a lot of those extra genes were born from mistakes. Each time a cell divides it makes new copies of its DNA. Sometimes it accidentally copies the same stretch of DNA twice. In the process it may make an extra copy of one of its genes. At first the extra gene works the same as the original one, but over the generations it may pick up new mutations. Those mutations may change how the gene works. And that new gene may duplicate again.

In snakes for example, there is a gene that makes a protein for killing bacteria. Long ago the gene duplicated and the new copies mutated. That mutation changed the signal in the gene about where to make its protein. Instead of becoming active in the snake’s pancreas it started making this bacteria killing protein in the snake’s mouth. So when the snake bit its prey, this enzyme got into the animal’s wound. And when this protein proved to have a harmful effects and helped the snake catch more pray, it became favored. So now what was a gene in the pancreas makes the venom in the months that kills the snake spray.

This ancient technique of duplication and preservation has kept most of our basic and essential structure intact for millions of years. However when it comes to evolution, the deviation that a daughter cell will eventually express, has made the progress of life on Earth what it is to this day. This constant rebellion of the genetic offspring from its parents and the constant need to mutate, is the basis on which progress is made.

This explanation accounts for so many puzzling everyday phenomena. But I also like it because it emphasizes two really important facts about minds and brains that are often overlooked. First, and there is the graver case of adults, in Eastern cultures where it is forbidden for children to deviate from the safety of their homes until their 20’s or 30’s. This increasingly creates young adults who are faced with the uncompromising reality of the drive for sex, power and respect, without the expertise and impulse-control it takes to ward off a wide range of problems common to underdeveloped and Eastern countries such as extremism, sexual harassment, unemployment, violence, as well as general feelings of angst and lack of will to commit to relationships or work.

This explanation elegantly accounts for the paradoxes and problems of our particular crop of adolescents. Because of the delayed graduation from the parent home, a conflict between the emotional system and delayed direction control system has been created as a result.There do seem to be many young adults who are enormously smart and knowledgeable but directionless, who are enthusiastic and exuberant but unable to commit to a particular work or a particular love until well into their twenties or thirties. Young adults of this demography who live a sheltered life with their parents are seeking independent lives against the will of society more than any other generation before them.

Second, there’s the fact that experience shapes the brain. Its truer to say that our experience of controlling our impulses make the prefrontal cortex develop than it is to say that prefrontal development makes us better at controlling our impulses. Just like the it is more reasonable to say that experience builds character than that characters builds experience. Something that if properly understood and accepted in larger society can perhaps one day change the behavior parents exert over their children and the direction of the education they receive at home.

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