Throughout our childhood, people often say that we will understand what is going on when we are an adult and we were taught that we become an adult once we turn 18 years old. I mean, only adults can learn to drive legally. We know that entering adulthood is when we become more mature, independent and have a sense of responsibility. Still, when we do the complete opposite, such as saying childish things or acting immature, people tell us: “You’re an adult already, act like one,”. Why is it sometimes so hard for us to act like adults when society tells us we’re adults, it is like we have grown up but have we fully grown up? Thankfully neuroscience researchers and scientists may have the answers on how fast the brain matures, meaning how long it will take for us to fully become an “adult”. Talking about brain maturation can be confusing to some, but we will be breaking it down for you.
The brain doesn’t fully mature at 18
Even though society tells us that we are adults once we turn 18 years old, neuroscience research hints that it may be time for us to rethink when we actually become “adults”.
This research shows that the human brain matures in size when we are adolescents, while the important developments for the prefrontal cortex and other regions will occur in our 20’s. This means that it usually takes around 25 to 30 years for our brains to fully develop; though it also depends on the individual, as factors such as gender and childhood experiences play a huge role in how fast one matures. Everyone has their own phase in growing up, and they should never compare how fast they “grow up” with others as these factors have to be taken into consideration.
Interestingly, gender does indeed play a role in determining the rate at which one matures. To girls reading this, have you ever witnessed your male peers doing something you deemed childish? Or were they unable to comprehend emotions the same way girls did? According to research, we can observe that there is actual science behind these behaviours. Scientists from Newcastle University found that most girls mature at an average of two years earlier than boys because female brain connections usually become more streamlined earlier than most males. The streamlining of the brain connections refers to the brain becoming more active, allowing neural networks to nourish and survive so it does not shrink due to a lack of use. This provides context as to why females generally mature quicker than males in most emotional and cognitive areas, especially during their childhood and adolescence.
Maturity is not something that is necessarily measured by one's age, rather it is an attitude developed by their experiences. According to research from Radboud University Nijmegen published in Scientific Reports in 2018, those who have undergone a lot of stress especially during their childhood (0-5 years old) mature faster than others. These stress levels affect the maturation of the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and amygdala, the brain regions which are important to function in emotional and social situations. However, this does not apply to the stress that might occur later on in life, especially during the adolescence period (14-17 years old), as the brain will react completely opposite, leading to slower maturation of the teenage brain. Researchers are not sure why stress causes these effects but based on animal studies they were able to hypothesise that these mechanisms are causal.
There is nothing wrong with feeling immature and it is okay to take our time growing up. Professor Peter Jones, who is part of the epiCentre group at Cambridge University has said that there is no childhood and then adulthood, and people are on a pathway, a trajectory. Growing up is not a phase but a path and experience we all have to go through, so do not rush yourself. Besides, in this digital age, we are all interconnected and are more flexible in life, giving our current generation a reason to be optimistic; it sounds like we are ready for independence and the many challenges ahead of us, right? But did you know that because we live in this modern world where everything is fast-paced, the human brain is not able to evolve quickly enough? Because of this, we need to learn that it is okay for us to sometimes feel like a child in an adult’s body. There are many factors that affect how fast we mature, so we need to learn to take it easy with ourselves and not feel pressured to grow up. Take your time with yourself and remember that it is okay to be childish once in a while and have fun!
By Ang Hui Li