MIDWAY: Adolescent embarrassment

You only ever hear a nice thing about a teenager from a charity worker. Otherwise, parents, teachers, the police, the criminal justice system, all are united, just for this instance: adolescents are awful. This has permeated my consciousness so fully that when a teenage stranger does something nice, my worldview is so disturbed, and it takes me so much extra bigotry to get everything back on its axis, that the day would have been easier if it hadn’t happened.

I read once that the pubescent growth spurt took so much raw energy that the individual’s brain effectively shuts down, leaving only the reptilian section — responsible for eating, breathing, but also the base emotions of anger, lust, rage, paranoia and anxiety. It explains a lot about why everyone is so wary of them, but if they really have nothing more than a beast’s functionality, is school the best place?

Wouldn’t they be better off in some kind of secure unit? And yet, we can’t escape the fact that we all lived through this period and it didn’t strike me that everything was my fault.

This week’s research about embarrassment cuts straight to the heart of this. According to Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, in a study for the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, adolescents use their medial prefrontal cortex even when considering situations that might cause them embarrassment; adults do not.

Blakemore, questioned about the purpose of the study, said that adolescence was a key time in emotional development and, by extension, the development of mental illness. Overwhelmingly, the onset of depression and anxiety disorders, not to mention anorexia and similar will occur in this window.

Because many adolescent traits are antisocial — specifically volatility and aggression — the assumption is that the immature mind is always disharmonious, where the mature mind

always works towards community, or, at the very least, is more civic-minded than it was when it was 14.

Maybe adolescents only went into embarrassment overdrive because the rest of us weren’t taking it seriously enough. Maybe we’re the feckless ones, and they’re the ones trying to hold it together. Maybe they’re not reptiles after all.