Why is 18 the age of adulthood if the brain can take 30 years to mature?

Neuroscience research suggests it might be time to rethink our ideas about when exactly a child becomes an adult.

  • Research suggests that most human brains take about 25 years to develop, though these rates can vary among men and women, and among individuals.
  • Although the human brain matures in size during adolescence, important developments within the prefrontal cortex and other regions still take pace well into one's 20s.
  • The findings raise complex ethical questions about the way our criminal justice systems punishes criminals in their late teens and early 20s.

At what age does someone become an adult? Many might say that the 18th birthday marks the transition from childhood to adulthood. After all, that's the age at which people can typically join the military and become fully independent in the eyes of the law.

But in light of research showing our brains develop gradually over the course of several decades, and at different paces among individuals, should we start rethinking how we categorize children and adults?

"There isn't a childhood and then an adulthood," Peter Jones, who works as part of the epiCentre group at Cambridge University, told the BBC. "People are on a pathway, they're on a trajectory."

The prefrontal cortex, cerebellum and reward systems

One key part of that trajectory is the development of the prefrontal cortex, a significant part of the brain, in terms of social interactions, that affects how we regulate emotions, control impulsive behavior, assess risk and make long-term plans. Also important are the brain's reward systems, which are especially excitable during adolescence. But these parts of the brain don't stop growing at age 18. In fact, research shows that it can take more than 25 years for them to reach maturity.

The cerebellum also affects our cognitive maturity. But unlike the prefrontal cortex, the development of the cerebellum appears to depend largely on environment, as Dr. Jay Giedd, chair of child psychiatry at Rady Children's Hospital-San Diego, told PBS:

"Identical twins' cerebellum are no more alike than non-identical twins. So we think this part of the brain is very susceptible to the environment. And interestingly, it's a part of the brain that changes most during the teen years. This part of the brain has not finished growing well into the early 20s, even. The cerebellum used to be thought to be involved in the coordination of our muscles. So if your cerebellum is working well, you were graceful, a good dancer, a good athlete.

But we now know it's also involved in coordination of our cognitive processes, our thinking processes. Just like one can be physically clumsy, one can be kind of mentally clumsy. And this ability to smooth out all the different intellectual processes to navigate the complicated social life of the teen and to get through these things smoothly and gracefully instead of lurching. . . seems to be a function of the cerebellum."

The effects environment can bring upon the cerebellum even further complicate the question when does a child become an adult, considering the answer might depend on the kind of childhood an individual experienced.

Adulthood and the criminal justice system

These factors of cognitive develop raise many philosophical questions, but perhaps none are as important as those related to how we punish criminal, especially among young men, whose brains develop an average of two years later than women.

"The preponderance of young men engaging in these deadly, evil, and stupid acts of violence may be a result of brains that have yet to fully developed," Howard Forman, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

So, does that mean young criminals — say, 19- to 25-year-olds — should be receive the same punishment as a 35-year-old who commits the same crime? Both criminals would still be guilty, but each might not necessarily deserve the same punishment, as Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University, told Newsweek.

"It's not about guilt or innocence... The question is, 'How culpable are they, and how do we punish them?'"

After all, most countries have separate juvenile justice systems to deal with children who commit crimes. These separate systems are predicated on the idea that there ought to be a spectrum of culpability that accounts for a criminal's age. So, if we assume that the importance of age in the eyes of the justice system is based largely on cognitive differences between children and adults, then why shouldn't that culpability spectrum be modified to better match the science, which clearly shows that 18 is not the age at which the brain is fully matured?

Whatever the answer, society clearly needs some definition of adulthood in order to be able to differentiate between children and adults in order to function smoothly, as Jones suggested to the BBC.

"I guess systems like the education system, the health system and the legal system make it convenient for themselves by having definitions."

But that doesn't mean these definitions make sense outside of a legal context.

"What we're really saying is that to have a definition of when you move from childhood to adulthood looks increasingly absurd," he said. "It's a much more nuanced transition that takes place over three decades."

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Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life

Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

Antonio Masiello/Getty Images
Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.


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