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.

Why is 18 the age of adulthood if the brain can take 30 years to mature?
  • 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 place 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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A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
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  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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