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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Cortex Chronicles—Introduction

One year ago on Round and Square (25 July 2011)—Longevity Mountain: Mao and Then
[a] Young, swell, undeveloped RF
I received a nice note the other day from a Beloit College alumnus, a graduate of the distinguished class of 2009. He told me about the three years he had spent since leaving the ivy turrets, and mentioned that he had just passed a milestone—his twenty-fifth birthday. He did this in a way that has become familiar to me over the years, since he repeated a phrase that I have heard (by this time) from over a hundred students. Here is how it went:

        I just wanted to let you know that I now have a fully-developed frontal cortex.

[b] Frontal RF
What? A fully-developed what?

There is a reason why I receive these cards, notes, and e-mail messages from many of my former students. Most of it goes back to their memories of something I say repeatedly in my anthropology and history classes. It is not particularly "sensitive," but there is a method behind the odd anthropometry of it all. Here is what I say whenever I get the chance:

         I am the only person in this room with 
         a fully-developed frontal cortex.

Huh?...and on several levels. Huh? 

You see, the human frontal lobe takes time to develop—up to a full quarter century, and long after we ask youthful brains to do all sorts of important things ranging from taking SATs (and GREs), voting, serving their country, drinking, and making kin. We have "kids" do all of that without even having a fully-polished ability to consider the full implications of their actions. You see, that is one of the most important social functions of the frontal cortex. It provides that extra time to consider important questions such as "Is it really the best use of my time to play Madden NFL 13 all day, even with finals approaching?" It can provide the difference between doing tequila shots and just sipping a nice, chilled Chardonnay. The frontal cortex is like a traffic-control center for all of the comings and goings of your thoughts and actions.  

[c] A lot RF
And it takes time to develop. The fact that the body's capabilities mature a great deal faster than its control functions...well, that is a wee little problem that creates all sorts of fun for traffic police, college administrators, and even swimming coaches. One evening during my regular weekly seminar, I explained the frontal cortex and its role in human behavior. I stressed that the frontal lobe at eighteen has not finished developing, and that such matters as relative freedom, physical maturity, swarming signals in your limbic system, and even testosterone could make for a volatile combination. One young man, sitting quietly and pensively at the end of the table slowly shook his head and said: "That explains a lot."

There is a commercial on television these days that goes something like this. A young man seems intent on doing everything just a bit too long—a bit too "involved." Rising to shake hands after a job offer, he begins an elaborate handshake ritual...that is stopped abruptly by a soft beep. Kissing his date goodnight, he begins to extend the moment with mouth gymnastics...before another beep stops him in his behavioral tracks. 

The frontal cortex is a little like the Nissan tire monitoring system, in other words. It is ready to emit a few warnings that you might be about to cross behavioral lines, and might want to rethink your current set of actions.

[d] Reflection RF
It's like a warning screen, asking if you really want to erase the entire contents of your hard drive. Are you sure? When fully developed (after about the age of twenty-five), it will even give you the equivalent of a "this action cannot be undone" warning.

Now, let's be clear. Plenty of eighteen year-olds check their actions and not a few fifty year-olds rush headlong into folly. The frontal cortex is just a warning system, performing a set of executive functions, as it were. It is not a behavioral control. It won't stop you from doing something really stupid. It just enables you think it over, reflect, and pause. Do I really want to do that? Really?

And that is what this series will be about. We will consider people who paused and said "I don't want to go down that road after all" as well as those who said "I think I'll have another drink and dance with this lampshade on my head." Stick around for a bumpy ride with us as we look at the many ways this neurological court of last resort works out in the lives we live.
[r] Pensive RF


  1. As Sopolsky says (paraphrasing), "The lack of a fully developed frontal cortex explains a lot of frat party behavior."