Childhood, adulthood, and the architecture of the brain

When does childhood end and adulthood begin?

We were so young, and we didn’t even know it.

I always thought of the end of high school as marking the end of childhood. Society tells us we’re an adult when we turn 18, and I believed it. In retrospect, that seems so naive.

My college years and the years that followed were electric. Everything was louder, bigger, more visceral, more heightened—emotions higher, stakes lower.

I’m thinking back to those day-long drives through the Blue Ridge Mountains, to and from school in North Carolina, and from Maryland to Pittsburgh for holidays and visits with family, when I’d throw some stuff into a bag and round up people—my brother, my sister, friends, whoever—and load into someone’s car … when we all smoked and it didn’t matter—or drank or were high on something and it didn’t matter—and we all drank gas station coffee and bitched and laughed at each other and emoted so naturally and at times just stared out the windows in silence, with rap or bluegrass or electronica blaring on the stereo. Sheetz coffee was always free on Christmas and New Year’s, and that was a big deal.

Moving out of childhood is so gradual, I didn’t even notice it happening. Eventually, I found myself not settling for anything, per se, but settling in—settling into myself—and reaching, in my 30s, the closest I’ve ever come to homeostasis.

I used to equate those “larger than life” experiences to the fact that we are still having experiences for the first time up until about our mid-20s, and then we begin to settle into routine. But this is simply not true. It’s not like people reach age 25 and then suddenly stop having new experiences, so why do they feel so different from early life? Is it due to the way in which our brain develops? Can we measure our crossing into the threshold of adulthood through the changes in the architecture of our brains?

My own coming-of-age, as I imagine is the case for most, seems to directly parallel this path of the developing brain. The brain is still developing until about age 25—some say as late as 30. We are still being imprinted, the impacts of all of our experiences more profound.

Granted, we’re not being impacted to the extent that we are up from birth to age 8. Our brainwaves up to age 2 match those of deep sleep, and from age 2 to 8, we move into theta and alpha waves, akin to being in deep meditation or under hypnosis—we are that impressionable. Science tells us that the main difference between the young adult brain and the adult brain lies in how we process information and make decisions—young adults do so primarily through their emotions, through the amygdala, while adults begin to base their actions on rational thought, stemming from the use of the prefrontal cortex.

Does it then follow that practicing meditation regularly can keep our brains—and therefore us—younger and more malleable?

Even as I inch toward 40, my dad still tells me, “You’re just a baby.” I remember thinking his saying that was ludicrous when I was in my early 20s. I’m clearly an adult. I eat tomato soup and bought my own car. But now, I think he had a point.

Adulthood is just a construct, and I’m not thinking of it in terms of any guidelines as mundane as our dietary choices or credit scores or how much responsibility we have. There’s a bit of a catch 22 here, in that the more responsibility we have, the more it shapes our brain to act within the (sometimes narrow) confines of society as a functioning adult. That didn’t really happen to me until I stepped into my first role as a full-time writer at a daily newspaper and had to put to rest my mid-week camping excursions and spontaneous late nights, trade them in for stability in the name of a steady paycheck that arrived every other Friday. I happened to be 25.

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