You Never Truly Leave High School

Jennifer Senior wrote a great piece in New York magazine a couple months ago titled “Why You Truly Never Leave High School.” It’s about the formative and lasting nature of the American high school experience. Excerpts below.

Our brain is primed to remember what happens during adolescence:

But for most of us adults, the adolescent years occupy a privileged place in our memories, which to some degree is even quantifiable: Give a grown adult a series of random prompts and cues, and odds are he or she will recall a disproportionate number of memories from adolescence. This phenomenon even has a name—the “reminiscence bump”—and it’s been found over and over in large population samples, with most studies suggesting that memories from the ages of 15 to 25 are most vividly retained.

On the adhesiveness of our self-image from those days:

Our self-image from those years, in other words, is especially adhesive. So, too, are our preferences. “There’s no reason why, at the age of 60, I should still be listening to the Allman Brothers,” Steinberg says. “Yet no matter how old you are, the music you listen to for the rest of your life is probably what you listened to when you were an adolescent.” Only extremely recent advances in neuroscience have begun to help explain why.

It turns out that just before adolescence, the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that governs our ability to reason, grasp abstractions, control impulses, and self-­reflect—undergoes a huge flurry of activity, giving young adults the intellectual capacity to form an identity, to develop the notion of a self. Any cultural stimuli we are exposed to during puberty can, therefore, make more of an impression, because we’re now perceiving them discerningly and metacognitively as things to sweep into our self-concepts or reject (I am the kind of person who likes the Allman Brothers). “During times when your identity is in transition,” says Steinberg, “it’s possible you store memories better than you do in times of stability.”

An adolescent subculture is a new phenomenon; teens don’t spend much time with adults anymore:

Until the Great Depression, the majority of American adolescents didn’t even graduate from high school. Once kids hit their teen years, they did a variety of things: farmed, helped run the home, earned a regular wage. Before the banning of child labor, they worked in factories and textile mills and mines. All were different roads to adulthood; many were undesirable, if not outright Dickensian. But these disparate paths did arguably have one virtue in common: They placed adolescent children alongside adults. They were not sequestered as they matured. Now teens live in a biosphere of their own. In their recent book Escaping the Endless Adolescence, psychologists Joseph and Claudia Worrell Allen note that teenagers today spend just 16 hours per week interacting with adults and 60 with their cohort. One century ago, it was almost exactly the reverse.

Something happens when children spend so much time apart from adult company. They start to generate a culture with independent values and priorities.

Guilt can be useful, whereas shame is not:

The academic interest in shame and other emotions of self-consciousness (guilt, embarrassment) is relatively recent. It’s part of a broader effort on the part of psychologists to think systematically about resilience—which emotions serve us well in the long run, which ones hobble and shrink us. Those who’ve spent a lot of time thinking about guilt, for example, have come to the surprising conclusion that it’s pretty useful and adaptive, because it tends to center on a specific event (I cannot believe I did that) and is therefore narrowly focused enough to be constructive (I will apologize, and I will not do that again).

Shame, on the other hand, is a much more global, crippling sensation. Those who feel it aren’t energized by it but isolated. They feel unworthy of acceptance and fellowship; they labor under the impression that their awfulness is something to hide. “And this incredibly painful feeling that you’re not lovable or worthy of belonging?” asks Brown. “You’re navigating that feeling every day in high school.”

We’re all in high school, all the time:

Today, we also live in an age when our reputation is at the mercy of people we barely know, just as it was back in high school, for the simple reason that we lead much more public, interconnected lives. The prospect of sudden humiliation once again trails us, now in the form of unflattering photographs of ourselves or unwanted gossip, virally reproduced. The whole world has become a box of interacting strangers.

44 Responses to You Never Truly Leave High School

  1. I would like to see the data which supports the contention that “the [adolescent] brain is also buzzing with more dopamine activity than at any other time in the human life cycle”. This article is notably short on evidence.

    The Adam Phillips line quoted therein, “Puberty is everyone’s first experience of a sentient madness”, is glibly cute, like Irina Werning’s reenactments of old snapshots, but overwrought, like so much of post-Freudian psychoanalysis.

    It’s possible that the plasticity of the human brain would indicate adolescents who spend more time scratching the “magical windows” (bleh) of iPhones in the biosphere of their bedrooms get better dopamine buzz than those who have slingshot wars from their tree-forts in outdoor spaces, but this article reads like journalistic hype.

    Are Pattwel and Lee doing science by press release?

    I found a paper by Siobhan Pattwel and others called “A genetic variant BDNF polymorphism alters extinction learning in both mouse and human”, but I thought “Enhanced extinction of cocaine seeking in brain-derived neurotrophic factor Val66Met knock-in mice” looked more interesting.

    At least the author Jennifer Senior (is that really her name?) admits, “Now, people are not mice, and there are limits to what one can learn from a single experiment”, and I have to agree that “most American high schools are almost sadistically unhealthy places to send adolescents.”

    The most memorable day of my high school career was the day I dropped a hit of double-dome White Lightning acid at break. Fortunately afternoon classes were cancelled for a very colorful magic show by a comedian, giving good cover for laughing hysterically throughout the trip.

    That was some epic dopamine (yes, I know about LSD’s interaction with the serotoninergic system) fallout.

    Show me the paper.

    And if you don’t have it, at least send some good blotter.;-)

    • Ben Casnocha says:

      Good thoughts, Vince. I did appreciate her reference at one point in the piece to a study she cites but then qualifies with the disclaimer that the sample size was awfully small. At that moment anyway she was self-aware that some/many studies are unreliable sources of sweeping conclusions….

  2. I found this abstract of the paper, “The Adolescent Brain”, by B.J. Casey et al. It says:

    “There are significant peaks in dopamine expression during adolescence. Dopamine projections to the prefrontal cortex continue to develop into early adulthood, with dopamine levels peaking in the prefrontal cortex during adolescence versus earlier or later in life in nonhuman primates (Rosenberg & Lewis 1994, 1995) and in rats (Kalsbeek et al. 1988).”

    It continues:

    “Significant evidence suggests that the neuroanatomical changes described above are also occurring during adolescence in humans, but our methods for studying humans only provide an approximate index of such changes.”

    Apparently Jennifer Senior has taken this mere suggestion and blown it up into a misleading and exploitative article for popular consumption.

    Blown up like a teenage raver on his first molly at a free tekno party.

    She should be spanked.

    • Note:

      The link is to the author manuscript accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. It was published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

      This is not the paper by Casey, Pattwel and Lee I was looking for, if such even exists.

  3. Chris Yeh says:

    I regularly listen to old mixtapes from when I was in college. The idea is to put my brain back in a younger mood. They help me generate ideas.

    • Dave Carlson says:

      Really interesting thought. I do that for comfort/nostalgia periodically, but haven’t thought about doing it to put my brain in a younger mood.

  4. Colin Marshall says:

    I was having a talk with my girlfriend, who’s from Korea, about the whole middle-aged-people-listening-to-music-from-high-school phenomenon so well known in America. Apparently it doesn’t really happen in her homeland, or not as much. Older Koreans might well have fond memories of the songs they listened to growing up, but they tend not to go so far as to actually build a rotation of them. The most explanatory theory we could come up with was that, whereas an American 60-year-old can listen to their favorite music from 1970 and think, “Boy, life was sure good then,” life in Korea was objectively so much worse in 1970 that they can’t tell themselves the same story.

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