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Self-discovery & risk-taking in today’s teens: nature/nurture

In The Labyrinth of Solitude, Mexican poet and diplomat Octavio Paz grasped in a few lines the true meaning of coming-of-age contradictions:

“All of us, at some moment, have had a vision of our existence as something unique, untransferable, and precious. This revelation almost always takes place during adolescence. Self-discovery is the realization that we are alone: it is the opening of an impalpable, transparent wall—that of our consciousness—between the world and ourselves.”

Our instinctive brain evolved to maximize our potential for survival in the wild. Still, as civilization and culture transformed our environment, we forgot how deeply connected we are with our natural surroundings. Is this disconnect showing in early socialization patterns?

What we inherit and which things we acquire

In the ongoing conversation that contemporary society holds regarding how much a person’s characteristics are defined by either “nature” or “nurture,” several studies show us that we humans aren’t isolated from what other sentient beings experience: their offspring also learn to cope with the complexities of survival.

Consider, for example, the mesmerizing correlation between the ancestral yearning for risk of human teenagers and the similarly playful, sophisticated risk-taking behavior of juvenile chimps.

In our remote past, the behavior of young chimpanzees and human teens may have been even more visibly related, as our environment was equally natural —instead of shaped by us— and dangerous. Research directed by Alexandra Rosati from the University of Michigan compared human and chimpanzee adolescents to find clues about why adolescents take more risks: is it the environment or biological predispositions instead?

Mentor (son of Alcimus and friend of clever Odysseus) was in charge of the education of Telemachus, Odysseus’ son, when the hero left for the Trojan War; Mentor’s task is the origin of the term “mentoring”

Interestingly, even if “adolescent chimpanzees are in some sense facing the same psychological tempest that human teens are,” human teens seem to be prone to an addictive behavior:

“Risk-taking behavior in both adolescent chimpanzees and humans appears to be deeply biologically ingrained, but increases in impulsive behavior may be specific to human teens.”

Chimps live up to 50 years old; their adolescence is on par with humans, ranging from 8 to 15. And, like humans, they experience rapid changes in hormone levels, forming new bonds with peers as they distance themselves from paternal figures to test adulthood. Hormonal changes and itch for experimentation also mean that chimpanzee teens fall back on aggression and competitive behavior as markers of social status.

“Prior research indicates that chimpanzees are quite patient compared with other animals, and our study shows that their ability to delay gratification is already mature at a fairly young age, unlike in humans,” Rosati said.

Impulse control in the formative years

On the contrary, human adolescents struggle to control their cravings when it comes to instant versus delayed gratification: why wait to get something more consistent, human teens seem to think, if I can get a minor reward right away? Knowing our biological tendencies could help us understand why it is so hard to work towards achieving individual and common goals over the long term when our impulses are more short-term oriented.

When there’s a strong biological component and a potential for hormonal imbalance during long periods, nature seems to even things up for chimpanzee youngsters: growing up in places that would have been very similar for their remote ancestors seems to have given our distant cousins an edge over instinctual impulse management. What if our civilizational envelope, so different and from the environments our species inhabited not long ago, has made us more impulsive at a young age and not less?

Our teens need to learn to navigate complex social codes to fit within what’s expected and perceived as normal. Socialization (as Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau already predicted) is a recent construct that will make some teenagers feel uneasy with, triggering phenomena such as alienation and behavioral disorders.

Unlike Thomas Hobbes, who thought humans were naturally selfish, wicked, and “sinful,” and therefore had to pursue “the right path” actively, Rousseau theorized that children were inherently innocent but also weak and prone to make irrational decisions. To Rousseau, it was the environment that could cause adverse development outcomes. His views on the inherent potential of humankind became influential to early advocates of modern pedagogy and compulsory education.

Darwinism states that nature is as decisive as nurture. And, despite the excesses of evolutionary theories leading to pseudo-scientific beliefs such as eugenics, they have also evolved and now integrate disciplines such as epigenetics, or how the environment will affect how our genes work (and therefore our cognitive behavior during the maturing years of adolescence).

Between too much and too little

Somehow, despite scientific breakthroughs in cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, computer science, anthropology, linguistics, and neuroscience, we are somehow still stuck within the negative framing of human nature of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan versus the positive one of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile, or On Education. To Hobbes, it’s mankind that is naturally self-centered and needs discipline; to Rousseau, humans are innately good, and we must focus on creating nurturing environments capable of taming the destructive forces of civilization. We know it’s more complicated than any of these maximalist views.

Risk-taking training could be then something our species learned to do because it once was advantageous for survival. Is the highly structured and unexciting environment we built in early education the right place for children to find build their sense of the world and understand the need to have a purpose bigger than mere comfort and entertainment consumption?

As a society and also as individuals, much of our hopes go to having goals for the future and getting as close as possible to them. Having a sense of purpose and channeling our intention to overcome difficulties that get us ever closer to our dreams (big and small) helps us get out the bed.

We know that working towards defined goals and ideals also keeps us focused and, eventually, will shape our tolerance for risk, determining our ability to overcome setbacks, obstacles, etc. But too much boldness, where bravado eclipses prudence, can have the effect of addiction in our perception of reality: getting used to pursuing risk creates insensitivity to it, making us more vulnerable over the long term, not less. On the other extreme, apathy is a reaction to the disconnect between social expectations and our perception of the world as we grow up. Phenomena such as social withdrawal (known as “hikikomori” in Japan) consist in “quitting society” and remaining secluded, refusing to grow up.

The biophilia hypothesis

Arguably, the confusion of (post)postmodernism seems to be triggering compulsive (and impulsive) behavior, and philosophers such as German-Korean Byung-Hul Chan are exploring the consequences of extreme risk-taking and total lack of thereof: hikikomoris and children risking their lives to take selfies or experiment with drugs. Instead of getting closer to the Greek myth of Icarus, a youngster who built himself wings out of candle wax and feathers, which melted as he approached the sun too much, today’s impulsive behavior leans less towards attributes such as cunning, and more towards nihilistic compulsion and self-harm.

What’s the impact on us of growing up in environments that consciously detach themselves from routines more aligned with the environmental routines that shaped our species? We eat different food, dedicate less physical and mental effort to survive in the wild, and our circadian rhythms need to adjust to activities that don’t consider the needs of our internal clock. We seem to struggle with such transformation during the formative and hormonally unstable years of adolescence, but sensitive people could be craving what biologist E.O. Wilson called “biophilia.”

“The naturalist is a civilized hunter. He goes alone into the field or woodland and closes his mind to everything but that time and place so that life around him presses in on all the senses and small details grow in significance. He begins the scanning search for which cognition was engineered. His mind becomes unfocused, it focuses on everything, no longer directed toward any ordinary task or social pleasantry.”

The biophilia hypothesis celebrates our innate connection with all things natural, and our tendency to seek connections and feel nurtured (or stimulated) by the patterns we observe in nature seems universal, shared by those born in sterile urban environments and by the members of the few remaining uncontacted tribes, idealized by Western civilization as “noble savages” since the Renaissance by the father of the essay, Michel de Montaigne, and developed later on by Enlightenment thinkers.

Our gut and our brain

We are far from Montaigne and Rousseau when it comes to idealizing the innate goodness of those arguably “not corrupted” by civilization. Jean Jacques Rousseau and John Locke were so convinced about human beings’ innate goodness (one idea already present in philosophy since Socrates, if not earlier on) that they believed that generalized education in early childhood could transform societies.

Their contradiction was later highlighted by Nietzsche and, more recently, by Michel Foucault, who argued that homogeneous compulsory education (unaware of the interests of each individual and in favor of memorization over creativity) has a potential for mass alienation and is also at odds with our instincts and our relation with nature.

We consider “normal” and desirable to have young children immobilized for hours in “learning” environments that penalize (and sometimes medicate) outliers, barely linking their wellbeing with new behaviors such as competitive over-scheduling, processed-food diets, and screen consumption as the new “entertainment.”

Evidence keeps growing on the links between lifestyle and behavioral disquiet. There’s a connection —studies suggest— between our microbiome and the way we think. Other studies point out how the most popular forms of online interaction in teens are detrimental to mood, concentration, and self-esteem.

The bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms living in our guts are essential not only to our metabolism but also to their equilibrium. When healthy, our gut flora helps us also think better, avoiding less balanced (often more obsessive) behaviors. In the book Are You Thinking Clearly?, authors Miriam Frankel and Matt Warren explain how the environment we live in and the food adolescents eat may alter their behavior and increase the likelihood of developing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease, and eating disorders.

Lost in translation across the gut-brain axis

The so-called gut-brain axis, or the communication between the brain, the gut, and our intestinal function, is so crucial in our wellbeing that experts have called the enteric nervous system regulating the gut our “second brain.” Braden Kuo, director of the Center for Neurointestinal Health at Massachusetts General Hospital, explains that the bidirectional communication gut-brain “affects how we feel and perceive gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms and impacts our quality of life.”

John Cryan, a neuroscientist at University College Cork, explains how modern medicine is barely beginning to explore a holistic approach to bodily functions and their connection to the mind-body problem:

“In medicine, we tend to compartmentalize the body. So, when we talk about issues with the brain, we tend to think about the neck upwards. But we need to frame things evolutionarily. It’s important to remember that microbes were here before humans existed, so we have evolved with these ‘friends with benefits.’ There has never been a time when the brain existed without the signals coming from the microbes.

“What if these signals are actually really important in determining how we feel, how we behave and how we act? And could we modulate these microbes therapeutically to improve thinking, behavior and brain health?”

The gut microbiome is involved in bodily and cognitive functions, and has been associated to cognition and neurological conditions, from obsessive-compulsive disorder to depression. But there’s another diet that should represent another concern: online interaction “impacts the mood and cognitive function of young people,” states a study conducted by Susanne Schweizer, a psychologist at UNSW Sydney.

Being evaluated by others online can affect wellbeing and cognition in adolescents, and, in extreme cases, it can represent a safety threat. The participants in the study confirmed a greater increase in negative mood after social evaluation online when completing a task:

“Our research showed that when young people thought that others might be evaluating them, they felt upset, and their ability to perform a basic cognitive task was impaired. Assuming these findings reflect the impact of online social evaluation, then these results are concerning.”

The Sydney researcher reminds us that previous studies prove how more in-person social interactions and support are predictors of adolescent wellbeing:

“Adolescents with good social support are happier and perform better cognitively, for example in school contexts.

“In contrast, young people who are highly sensitive to social feedback and rejection are at risk for poor mental health and cognitive functioning.”

Cunning is greater than strength

Adolescence is marked by several developmental changes, as we clearly see. Considering hormonal imbalances, circadian system rollercoasters, need of sleep, mood changes, and mercurial peer relations is only a part of the story. Even diet (food and drinks, but also digital information) take their part in today’s formative years.

But, when young, everything is yet to be done, and everything should seem possible. To Octavio Paz,

“It is true that we sense our aloneness almost as soon as we are born but children and adults can transcend their solitude and forget themselves in games or work. The adolescent, however, vacillates, between infancy and youth, halting for a moment before the infinite richness of the world. He is astonished at the fact of his being, and this astonishment leads to reflection: as he leans over the river of consciousness, he asks himself if the face that appears there, disfigured by the water, is his own. The singularity of his being, which is pure sensation in children, becomes a problem and a question.

“Much the same thing happens to nations and peoples at a certain critical moment in their development. They ask themselves: What are we, and how can we fulfill our obligations to ourselves as we are? The answers we give to these questions are often belied by history, perhaps because what is called the ‘genius of a people’ is only a set of reactions to a given stimulus. The answers differ in different situations, and the national character, which was thought to be immutable, changes with them.”