Friday, May 22, 2015

The teen brain isn't fully grown until age 25: what about prodigies?

Scientific American has a big article, by Jay N. Giedd, about the “teen brain” or adolescent brain, which is recommended reading, in the May 2015 issue, link (paywall) here. This article seems to update an early piece back in 2007.  Related is a New York Times piece, "Challenge highly talented children", by Camilia P. Benbow, May 20, here. 
Evolution has provided humans a complicated and cyclical brain growth and “pruning” process.  The latter, which starts in late childhood, allows the brain to focus on its particular gifts and skills so that the person can become as individually effective in a social group as possible.  But adolescence, especially for males, involves an uneven process involving risk taking, adventure, and only later learning to evaluate harm and (as Der. Phil says) “see around corners.”  That becomes particularly significant with online behavior, since teenagers can’t possibly grasp the long-term consequences in the adult world of some reckless social media posts.   
Girls seem to mature sooner than boys, but with prodigies, the appearance of gifts seems to disregard gender, race, sexual orientation, and everything else.  Consider Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Andraka, but then consider Taylor Swift.  (OK, add Steve Jobs and Bill Gates to the history.)   But is a teen prodigy able to develop a cancer test or a social media platform able to see the long term consequences better than average?  Probably, yes.  There’s some evidence that Mark Zuckerberg did understand the implications of user-generated content on the Internet as early as when he was a freshman at Harvard.  Ironically, he would have learned about the controversy over military recruiting on campus at the time over the now repealed “don’t ask don’t tell” policy and what that would mean online.  
Generally, male prodigies are not behind norms in physical strength and fitness.  I wonder if I missed being a music prodigy because, ironically, my own brain started pruning normal male physical skills too early.  Sometimes, prodigies (especially men) do demonstrate very mild autism spectrum or Asperger’s (and seem distant from more typical social connections and bonding), which they learn to deal with socially “in their own way”, leading to unusual innovations.  On the other hand, many young males, especially in disadvantaged backgrounds, never learn to "think ahead" and "connect the dots" for their own best interest at all. 

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