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Joseph McCarthy at the Senate subcommittee hearings, for example -- attorney Joseph Welch eviscerating him by asking, "Have you no decency, sir? David Schine, after Cohn lobbied to obtain special privileges for the Army private. Cohn's biography is equally fascinating as a legal savant, someone who graduated law school at the age of 20, began his public life pushing for the death penalty in the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and found power as McCarthy's right hand.

He later segued to New York City, where his interactions with both the city's elite and the Mafia allowed him to wield considerable influence. Roy Cohn with Donald Trump. In the s that circle also included Trump, who Cohn recognized as a kindred spirit. When the study is carried out in a brain scanner, the presence of peers egging on by intercom lessens frontal cortical activity and enhances activity in the limbic dopamine system in adolescents, but not in adults.

This teenage vulnerability to peer pressure is worsened by the fact that such pressure rarely takes the form of hesitant adolescents coerced into joining in the fun of committing random acts of kindness. As has been said, the greatest crime-fighting tool available to society is a 30 th birthday.

One brain-imaging study reveals the neural depths of adolescent pain in not belonging. Put someone in a scanner to play a video game with two other individuals, and manipulate things so that the subject believes they are being ostracized. In adults, this social exclusion activates the amygdala along with other limbic regions associated with pain, disgust, anger, and sadness. Do the same with an adolescent and the frontal cortex remains silent and that agonized limbic network of teenage angst wails.


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The slowpoke frontal cortex is not the only explanation for teen behavior. Another factor comes into play that keeps that teen brain off balance, namely gonadal hormones like estrogen and progesterone in females, and testosterone in males.

Hormones have numerous effects on the function of both the limbic system and frontal cortex. Testosterone decreases the ability of the frontal cortex to communicate with and rein in the amygdala. Not surprisingly, landmarks of adolescent maturation in brain and behavior are less related to chronological age than to time since puberty.

The onset of puberty is not merely about the sudden onslaught of gonadal hormones. The defining feature of ovarian endocrine function is, of course, the oscillations of hormone release. Instead, for the first few years, only about half of cycles actually involve ovulation and the accompanying hormonal surges. So not only are there major fluctuations in gonadal hormone levels due to ovulation, but also higher-order fluctuations as to whether ovulation occurs. And fluctuations in hormones affect emotion and cognition. The limbic system is fully online and dopamine is careening all over the place.

Meanwhile, the brain is being marinated in the ebb and flow of gonadal hormones. No wonder the human species produces beings like Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus, making a handy living catering to their constituency. This intensity is at the intersection of so many facets of adolescence. With the highs higher and lows lower, the empathic pain scalds and the glow of having done the right thing makes it seem plausible that we are here for a purpose. Another factor is the openness to novelty. And there is the egoism of adolescence. There was a period during my late adolescence where I hung out with Quakers.

Egoism is tailor-made for adolescents. Throw in inexhaustible energy and the sense of omnipotence and it seems possible to make the world whole. A few years ago, I saw a magnificent example of the empathy that a sluggish frontal cortex can produce in teenagers.

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Some high school kids had come to a performance as a group outing for an English class. Up until that point, she had only been hinted at as a character. It says you have a daughter. So as the girl begins to emerge from the ventilation duct, the realization sweeps through the audience: there is a daughter.

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This is the picture of adolescents with their hearts on their sleeves, limbic systems going full blast, and their frontal cortices straining to catch up with some emotional self-regulation. When I see the best of my university students in that agitated, optimistic state, I always have the same thought: It used to be so much easier to be like this. Having this adult frontal cortex of mine probably enables me to do good in a more efficacious, detached way.

S o what is the adaptive advantage of human brain development evolving this way?

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Potentially, there is no advantage. Perhaps the human frontal cortical maturation is delayed because it is the most challenging construction project the brain undertakes. In this view, wiring up something like the visual cortex can pretty much be wrapped up in the first year of life, but doing the same in the frontal cortex takes another quarter century. This seems unlikely. The frontal cortex has the same basic structure as the rest of the cortex, uses the same neurotransmitters and types of neurons.

On a nuts and bolts level, its maturation is slower than necessary, suggesting that there has indeed been active selection for the delay, that there is something advantageous about it. One possibility, of course, is the adolescent turbulence. Just a simple transition from kids to fertile adults around age One can imagine that something would then be lost—that developmental phase of antsy, itchy exploration and creativity that has been evolutionarily enriching.

We might not have had that long line of pimply adolescent geniuses who worked away to invent fire, cave-painting, and the wheel. No, I think that the genetic program of brain development has evolved to help free the frontal cortex from the straightjacket of genes. Account Settings Change email or password.

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