Press Announcements about Science, or Why Your Teen Can't Help His Criminal Behavior

Yesterday, two people told me that "A study showed that teenagers haven't yet developed the part of their brain that creates fear of bad consequences in the future."

Hmm... These are both bright people, but neither have been trained in the methods of critical history: In critical history, we don't believe our sources, we interrogate them.

And here we have a very good reason to interrogate. Let me relate a true tale: Years ago, my then three-year-old son saw a woodchuck in the backyard. "Can I go catch the woodchucker, Dad?" (Cute, huh? And Chomskean! The addition of the "er" recalls a story about Wabulon from a book on linguistics.)

"Sure thing." No harm, no foul: there was no way he would actually catch the thing, which would scamper out of the yard as soon as anyone walked into it.

But suddenly he stopped. He thought for a second and then asked, with a worried look, "Dad, do woodchuckers bite?"

You see, at three, he could envision catching the woodchuck, and it biting him, and he feared this consequence. So obviously, as stated by my friends, the new fact I was being told is false. But I am sure this is just what they heard or read. So how did this happen? Let's look for the original source of the story my interlocutors heard:

Deborah Yurgelun-Todd seems to be at or near the root of the story here. In this interview, she describes some of her groups findings:

"This is a really nice picture highlighting the fact that in an adolescent brain or a younger brain, the relative activation of the prefrontal region or this anterior front part of the brain is less it is in the adults."

So, they have this part of the brain, and it is active... just not as active.

"This is a small pilot study, so clearly if we added a considerably larger sample, we may have very different results. So I want to be cautious and not over-interpret these findings."

A small pilot study? Don't put too much weight on the findings?

"which would lead us to believe that they'd be more impulsive, because they're not going to be so worried about whether or not what they're doing has a negative consequence..."

More impulsive? Not so worried?

So what happened between Yurgelun-Todd and the story in the press which had inspired my friends?

Well, when a scholarly paper is written, an abstract is included. The purpose of this abstract is to grab readers' attention, so it tends to leave out all qualifications and state the conclusions of the paper fairly boldly. Then that paper may go to a university PR department, where someone will probably just read the abstract, and has a motivation to play up the novelty of the results even a bit more: this is a PR department, after all.

The PR person sends out a press release. Reporters scan these for something that will really gets readers or listeners or viewers juices going, and then probably make the news story even a little more spectacular and less nuanced than the press release. So we go from "Teenagers' brains are somewhat different than adults'" to "Teenagers lack the part of the brain that considers the future."

And really, who couldn't have guessed Yurgelun-Todd's result? After all, everyone -- materialists, Neo-Aristotelians, idealists, panpsychists, dualists -- acknowledges that there is a relationship between brain structure and thought, experience, and behavior.* And what is producing changing brain structures in a human already through puberty and essentially fully grown? Could it be, perhaps... experience? So moving from the brain to action, we might recast Yurgelun-Todd's result as, "Teenagers, lacking experience, usually don't exercise judgment as well as adults." Who would have imagined?

(And here is a test of my hypoethesis above, for all of you Popperians: may I recommend that Yurgelun-Todd perform a similar study of the brains of teenagers in a hunter-gatherer society, where at thirteen the boys are initiated into adulthood and then beginning taking part in very dangerous hunts? I bet by sixteen, it will be found that the "fearing the consequences of one's actions" part of the hunter-gatherer man's brain will be well more developed than a pampered 16-year-old American boy's.)

* Well, unless they are an eliminativist like Rosenberg, who thinks thought does not even exist.


  1. Maybe not if the 16-year-old American boy is black.


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