Science

Don’t fret students: adulthood doesn’t start until you’re 25

As students, I’m sure most of us feel like we’re slipping back into childhood with frequent naps, post-lecture snack time, and perhaps even by having a little cry because you’re missing your mother. We may have been pushed into acting “like a grown-up” at age 18, and legally you are a full adult at 21, however research has found that adulthood officially starts at 25.

According to psychiatrist, Beatriz Luna, adolescent desires thought to die down after 15 years of age actually increase; desires such as sensation seeking and a want for novelty. Professor Luna believes this has to do with the added responsibilities that come during the late teens and early 20s, especially as individuals leave home and fend for themselves.

Crucial neurological changes take place beyond the traditional boundaries of adulthood. Professor Luna indicates that attitudes traditionally adopted by teenagers, such as a will to defy one’s parents, are part of this procedure. She states that “at that age their brain is telling them to start leaving the nest and taking chances. They are discovering new freedoms”. Thus young people do stay adolescents for longer as the brain encourages them to do what they want to do, rather than what people tell them to do, as it provides a vital variability of experience as mistakes are made during independent decision making.

A part of the brain known as the “striatum” is the cause of this as research has found that it continues to run at an elevated level until around 25. It is stimulated by rewards and thus encourages individuals to seek out their desires and thus gives a heightened sensitivity to motivation. This is combined with the pre-frontal cortex, otherwise known as the “planning centre” which controls adult-like reasoning, to drive teens’ curiosity and experimentation, allowing them to function in new situations without seeking help from elders and parents.

However, Professor Luna has also indicated that the messages of responsibility from the pre-frontal cortex are occasionally overruled by dopamine in the young person’s mind – a hormone giving feelings of happiness when taking risks. All this combined means that the brain still remains in a state of adolescence until much later than originally thought. Beatriz Luna is still conducting research into how long it takes for changes signalling adulthood in the brain to complete, but she has indicated it’s possible that they continue into the early 30s.

What does this mean for the young folk of today? People in their early 20s probably won’t be treated any differently, but perhaps you now know on what to blame for any stupid things you’ve done. Luna herself states that “having the freedom to play a bit longer in life might be a good thing”. Maybe it’s time to stop feeling embarrassed about bringing that teddy bear with you to university: most of us still have a few more years until adulthood.

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