The twentysomething brain (and beyond.)

(from my manuscript-in-progress)

Significantly, Buddhists call looking at an object or emotion steadily for some time and processing the emotions that arise “sustaining the gaze.”  The ability to “sustain the gaze” without distraction from within or without is the ability to rest in the relative stability of a mature understanding of reality, to pay attention to the other person or thing as it is, to enter into a reality beyond the self, and to recognize – as I’ve said before – that the world is not a story with yourself at the center.  Walking this path, you find that your own neuroses, anxieties, and self-criticisms diminish and your ability to engage the world with wonder and empathy and fairness increases.

Being able to “sustain the gaze” – including at yourself, to evaluate and renovate – is a sign of maturity, no matter what your actual age is.  Yet technology and media are only one part of what makes that type of maturity difficult – in many cases, achieving mindfulness means working against the structure of the brain itself, and the younger and/or the more technologically immersed you are, the more difficult this may be.  In her book The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter – And How To Make the Most of Them Now, clinical psychologist Meg Jay writes that since our brains develop from the bottom to the top and from the back to the front, among the most active portions of our brains when we’re in our twenties are the amygdalae – the deeply rooted seat of “the emotional brain,” where emotions and memories (particularly challenging or fearful ones) are assimilated into long-term memory storage.  “Evolutionary theorists believe,” Jay writes, “that the brain is designed to pay special attention to what catches us off-guard, so we can be better prepared to meet the world next time,” and since our twenties are full of experiences different in degree and in kind from what came before, the amygdalae can make us feel more than a bit as if we’re on an emotional rollercoaster, jolted up, down, or sideways by strong emotions connected to new experiences. “MRI studies show,” Jay writes, “that twentysomething brains simply react more strongly to negative information than do the brains of older adults.”  Our active amygdalae make us feel as if every emotion or event (particularly negative ones) is groundbreaking and crucial, while the frontal lobe – the last part of the brain to develop, in our thirties – hasn’t yet assumed its full role as mediator, the site of reflecting, evaluating, putting life events into perspective, and calming oneself down.  As college students, we can feel whipsawed by disappointments or uncertainties in work, school, or relationships that may seem minor even five years later, simply because, in neurological terms, that event is standing center stage in our brains, alone, demanding what later comes to seem a disproportionate amount of bandwidth but at the time feels simply like “the way things are.” Scary or uncomfortable things just get the brain’s attention more.

Therefore, just as we can’t afford to assume that our current techno-saturated lifestyles are natural or inevitable and cannot be changed or resisted, we can’t lose sight of the fact that what we experience as “reality” is being constructed by our malleable brains, which are always in flux and response to stimuli from within and beyond ourselves.  We are always looking through a lens, and our lives become more centered, quiet, and powerful when we learn to see that the brain itself is where the lens is built, with and without our conscious consent.  Neuroscientist Douwe Draaisma, in his book Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older, writes that the feeling he describes in the title comes from the brain having more experiences to put next to one another in memory, creating an interior sense of speeded-up or compressed time which also can lend perspective: the event we’re experiencing is and is not unique.  In our own lives as thirty- and forty-somethings and beyond, we become able to calm ourselves even in difficulty with memories of previous survival, experiences we can put next to new ones in our memories as we draw upon the reflective, judging, forecasting powers of the mature frontal lobe:  I went through this before, we think, and it didn’t kill me; this feeling is painful, but pain does pass. 

By contrast, the relatively active and unmediated amygdala of a twentysomething and younger brain is seeking and seizing on new stimuli for the brain’s own development, then trumpeting to itself the importance of what it has found.  It wants to be plugged in.  It wants to connect.  It wants to be fed.  It can’t really help seeing itself as the most important thing in existence.  This, I’d argue, makes young brains especially susceptible to the rollercoaster of anxiety and stimulus-seeking that the Internet is designed to provide, and to the subsequent consumer anxiety that follows.  When every part of your interior life feels suffused by the imperative Grow! See more! Become a self! Figure out who you are! Build memories and experiences! – and when, as we’ve seen, these imperatives are arising from the literal structure of the brain itself – it can feel very logical to respond to those urges by checking Facebook and email obsessively, by clicking on the Zappos ad that pops up next to the Facebook post in which you’ve been chatting with your friends about a new pair of shoes for your job, or going out to shop for a new suit, or standing a round of drinks for friends and new social contacts at the bar, and swiping your credit card to make all of this happen and checking Facebook on your phone again to see what your friends are saying about you.  Jay’s The Defining Decade cites studies that reaffirm a familiar bit of financial-planning wisdom: in our twenties, it’s so easy to rack up debt because the future self that will be on the hook for it does not seem real, and because the actual and perceived pressures to form social and professional identity seem so urgent.  (Remember, the frontal lobe, where forecasting happens, isn’t quite grown up yet.)  In a study Jay cites, two groups of twentysomethings were shown two different kinds of pictures – one group saw current self-portraits, while the other was shown age-progressed pictures of themselves – and then each group was asked to set aside retirement savings for the person in the picture.  Unsurprisingly, the subjects who literally “saw their future selves” set aside more than twice as much as those looking at their present selves.

This “present bias,” to which we’re susceptible at any age, is heightened by a consumer culture constantly shrieking buy, watch, consume this to become this type of person, reducing – in quintessential capitalist logic – people to things and identities to trappings of things.  Creating consumers is about creating or heightening anxieties, then offering purchasable commodities as “solutions” to those anxieties.  (Partisan media communities can work the same way, offering stories and imagined communities of the like-minded to stoke views of the world that the media outlet itself has helped to create, reinforcing all of this as “reality.”)  Thus before they know it, twentysomethings can get stuck in a perfect storm of debt and anxiety created by what after all could be called socially and even neurologically “natural” goals: creating social connections in community, building an identity in others’ eyes and your own, generating stimuli and experiences that construct the brain’s bank of memory – and thus, perhaps, the self – from the inside.  Perhaps that new handbag or pair of shoes or book or item of outdoor gear or dream vacation adventure is, for the younger brain, literally harder to resist, especially when no other experience of the world exists yet to set against it.  Just as it’s easier to fume against those on one side of an issue if you don’t actually know anyone affected by it in ways you aren’t or anyone who disagrees with you, it’s easy to grasp at the available straw of consumer goods to cement that always-in-progress thing, your own identity, and dispel that most uncomfortable emotion – uncertainty and ambiguity and fear – when you have developed no other way to turn down the volume of that [perhaps imaginary] “need” shrieking in your ear.

As I write, as a tenured associate professor in a job I love, nine months away from age 40, I’m smiling a fond and bittersweet kind of smile: in my twenties and early thirties, I went through exactly what I’ve just described.  I got good grades in college, where I thrived in a double English and Journalism major and a newly formed Honors Program, edited the literary magazine, took as many creative writing classes as I could, and had the great fortune to learn through those experiences what I loved: writing.  An internship at a small but stellar advertising firm became a job there, from which I made the transition to graduate school in literature.  Yet although my performance in graduate school was outwardly as “successful” as my undergraduate career had been – perhaps more so, since I was publishing and teaching by that time – I couldn’t fully admit to myself how deeply I felt panicked and out of my depth.  I knew I was smart, but I’d always read and written more or less just what I wanted and been able to get away with it, seldom working systematically or with the kind of concentration I knew I was capable of.  Despite my high grades, great student rapport, happiness in the program, and conviction this was the right place for me in the world, I still felt like an imposter, bitten deep with the conviction most academics feel but few confess: they’re going to find out I don’t belong here and send me home.   I worked hard.  I read constantly.  I published scholarly articles and short stories while teaching undergraduates and taking courses and qualifying exams and going to conferences.  I made friends and threw parties.  But it never felt like enough.

So I went after the external trappings of professional academic identity with everything I had – specifically, with every credit card.  By the time I graduated with my Ph.D and secured my first tenure-track job, I was carrying $50,000 in consumer debt.  Some was perhaps justifiable: I’d had to finance a new car and job-search suits and plane tickets to MLA.  But easily half of it was clothes and meals out and concert tickets, the trappings of a social and professional identity I wanted badly to believe in.  And most of all it was books, new and used, from the three different used bookstores and excellent on-campus new bookstore I haunted so much that even their staffs started giving me bemused, incredulous smiles: you’re here again?  If I read about it or met the author at a reading or conference and could justify its purchase to myself for  “professional reasons” – I could write about this! I could teach this! It will help me with my dissertation! – I usually bought it.  In addition to the neat little piles of new acquisitions on my apartment coffee table, I kept the library books I was also checking out “just to look at.”  Unsurprisingly, overextension in every direction meant unproductivity in any direction, and it meant too often that those optimistically purchased or borrowed books got read hastily or not at all.  I worked multiple jobs and earned a stipend and kept myself afloat, but largely because the bubble of credit card expenditures lifted me artificially high.   I alternated between exuberance and comfort and choking panic when I looked at all my books.  So much hope and possibility.  So much obligation I feared I’d never live up to.  So much enthusiasm.  So much fear.  Fueled by promises and hard work and following through and discovering but also by a series of white lies, especially to myself, that got darker and darker: I’ll get a job and pay all this back.  It’ll be okay.  I’m only twenty-____.  I have a lot of time.  

As hard as it is to admit this now, I tell this story (especially to students and twentysomething friends) to emphasize how common it is and how quickly what seem like defensible choices can turn into something else you never meant to happen.  I’ve spent the years from job to tenure fighting to pay down that debt and get these old habits under control and feel now that I have, as much as any habits ever are under control.  Every year I get better at evaluating purchases and possessions by the truth of my own instincts and emotions, not others’ expectations: do I really like and want this in my life as it is right now, or is what I’m feeling some borrowed emotion or obligation? Will I still want this in a week? Do I feel a sense of real pleasure and possibility when I look at this, or do I feel primarily ‘I should do something with this?’ [‘Should,’ I’ve learned, tells me that something’s probably not going to happen.]  The book-buying has continued, but so now has the book-giving-away.  This past month I gave away six big boxes of books, from my office and from home.  When  I saw how many of those books were practically new, good scholarly editions bought in fits of conference or dissertation optimism and barely (or never) opened, I thought about the anxious girl who bought them, and I forgave her.  It’s okay.  You have enough now, and will continue to have enough.  And that’s what it’s really all about: let your frontal lobe talk to the rest of your brain about reality, the person you actually are and the life and career you actually have and want.  Let yourself settle down and look at what is, and leave space for the good things still to come.

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6 Responses to The twentysomething brain (and beyond.)

  1. When I first started reading your article I was thinking of a spot I had heard on public radio a few years ago. I was going through some crappy times with my then 18 year old daughter. The public radio expert stated that the human brain is not fully developed until age 26 and that explained why 20 somethings make irrational choices. I kept this in the back of my mind and it helped me to understand and cope with what seemed to be a never ending mess. She is now 24 and makes wise choices and has taught me( the 53 year old ) more than she will ever realize.
    Thanks for a great article and congratulations on paring down your stuff.

    • Thanks, Cindy – Glad this was helpful! Knowing this stuff about 20-something brains DEFINITELY helps with my students, and I can see how it would be helpful to parents, too. I was asked recently by someone whether I thought “students today were worse” than in the past, and I said, no, it’s just that we’re getting older while they’re remaining 19 [one of the interesting side effects of teaching] and they are surrounded by more devices than ever that make it harder for them to grow OUT of being 19. Glad you liked this piece.

  2. Anne says:

    I love this. Love it. There are so many sentences in here that I want to save, or clip. It’s so spot on! I am in the same place as you in terms of age – not in terms of having attained tenure, unfortunately! – and can recognize similar behaviors in myself as a late 20-something and early 30-something. I was fortunate that I did not acquire significant debt, but it *could* have happened. Anyway – thank you! I really enjoy reading your writing.

  3. Jennifer Folstad says:

    Wow – I could relate to this extremely well! I’ve been chuckling a bit this past week as 99% of the books that sparked my interest (lift, flip open, read excerpt) at the Preus Library books sale had your name in them. In my early 20s I definitely would have overspent – even at these cheap prices – and purchased too many to follow up on for various reasons. I agree wholeheartedly with your analysis of the 20 something brain as I was also recently reflecting on how there seemed to be so much more drama in my life at that time. Now that I’m around 40 I have a similar pause and reflection before purchase – Does it feed my passion(s)?

    Thank you for all the fantastic donations – I bought “The Handbook to Gothic Literature” and a “Guide to the City of New Orleans,” which should tell you quite a bit about where some of my passions are.

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