Not Just Kids at Heart
Have you bumped into full-grown adults lately who seem to have missed the maturity train? Maybe you’ve been one. I know I have. I’m not talking about kids at heart. I mean kids in most all behaviors including these.
- short attention spans
- unexplainable sense of fashion
- heightened need for fast action, novelty, and sensation
- lack of respect for tradition
- unpredictability, and lack of balance in priorities
- a tendency to overreact
When I was a kid, we had a name for when we acted too much that way.
I found out his week — weÃ¢â¬â¢re no longer brats!
Now at least one scientist, B.G. Charlton, is saying that immature behavior is the best thing going for the human race.
Forgive Us, We Have “Unfinished Minds”
Many discussed Charlton’s theory a few months ago. Being a
brat — someone with a short attention span, etc. — I didn’t catch it until recently. I was busy being playful, joyful, and filled with wonder.
The theory is called psychological neoteny. Bruce Charlton, its creator, is a professor in the School of Biology at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. Charlton’s theory is that in a world of uncertainty, psychologically immature humans adapt, thrive, and succeed. The term itself, neoteny, is zoological. It describes adult animals, such as salamanders, that retain the characteristics of the immature species.
According to Warren Bennis in Geeks and Geezers,
We discovered that every one of our geezers who continues to play a leadership role has one quality of overriding importance: neoteny. The dictionary defines neoteny, a zoological term, as Ã¢â¬Åthe retention of youthful qualities by adults.Ã¢â¬Â Neoteny is more than retaining a youthful appearance, although that is often part of it. Neoteny is the retention of all those wonderful qualities that we associate with youth: curiosity, playfulness, eagerness, fearlessness, warmth, energy.
You might not know that last March Joi Ito’s incubator, Neoteny, received $20 million in VC funding.
So Persuade Me
Seriously, I’ve always believed in the power of retaining the positive values of childhood, but I draw the line at thinking there’s value in immaturity.
A Ã¢â¬Åchild-like flexibility of attitudes, behaviors and knowledgeÃ¢â¬Â is probably adaptive to the increased instability of the modern world, Charlton believes. Formal education now extends well past physical maturity, leaving students with minds that are, he said, Ã¢â¬Åunfinished.Ã¢â¬Â
I still say it was too many Ã¢â¬Åself-esteemÃ¢â¬Â classes as children. . . . I’m just a little at odds with Professor Charlton’s theory.
Ã¢â¬ÅThe psychological neoteny effect of formal education is an accidental by-product Ã¢â¬â the main role of education is to increase general, abstract intelligence and prepare for economic activity,Ã¢â¬Â [Charlton explains].
His point is that continuing with formal education forces us to keep a child-like receptivity to learning and cognitive flexibility. He says that when education continues beyond physical maturity it counteracts the psychological maturity that would otherwise come with it.
I have trouble believing that a bias toward formal learning somehow forms a barrier to maturing. I think our brains have more capabilities than having to choose one over the other. People have been going to college for a very long time now. I’m not sure that folks such as Jonas Salk, Colin Powell, or Diane Sawyer would agree with Mr. Charlton’s theory either, though they might find it interesting.
Would that flexibility explain rudeness and tantrums from young adults that my mom wouldn’t have taken from any kid on our block? And if it does why isn’t every college graduate also showing the bad habits of immaturity that Charlton admits come along with the good by-products of neoteny?
Though weÃ¢â¬â¢re all constantly learning throughout our lifetimes, Charlton argues that in a stable environment, our human minds would be able to reach psychological maturity. He suggested that the hunter-gatherers did so.
IÃ¢â¬â¢m confused about how adults managed during times of, say, the Vietnam War, WWII, WWI, the Fall of the Roman Empire?
I don’t believe that the hunter-gatherers thought they lived in a stable environment.
Charlton says that in our unstable world, true maturity could actually counteract our ability to adapt. He suggests that our bias toward innovation and cognitive flexibility makes it possible that our genes may adapt to favor immature traits that thrive and succeed.
Brats — The High-Adapted, New Model Human.
I don’t think that’s what I want to be.
I guess the options left are to
- Get the Book — Taming Your Inner Brat: A Guide for Transforming Self-Defeating Behavior
- cling to my values and hold to my wonder. Work for and hope to earn the kind of investment that Joi Ito has achieved.
- become a salamander. (see Science and Technology entry)
I don’t really like it when I’m misbehaving. I’d rather be the nice one.
Do read the comments at the Slashdot reference. They’re entertaining.
–ME Ã¢â¬ÅLizÃ¢â¬Â Strauss