If you want to know how mature someone is, a good measure would be to see how he or she deals with uncertainty.
Uncertainty is the most common certainty – as common as the air we breathe. Maturity is not a state that older people inevitably reach (although they have had more time, and therefore more chances, to reach it). It is our ability, regardless of age, to catch our free-falling ball of reactions to a trigger, juggle them in our inner space until they settle and inform our better judgment. That is why as parents, as adults who care about kids, or as teachers, one of the fundamental things we should teach our kids is how to deal with uncertainty.
Now, a recently published study gives us another good indication of what maturity looks like in the brain. Previous studies of young people – from children to teenagers – have consistently shown that while all the brain regions are already present in their heads, the connections between the "thinking, reasoning, planning" region (mainly prefrontal cortex) and the "impulse" region (amygdala) have yet to happen.
Building maturity is like building a town. You have to excavate the roads that will connect the city hall, the theater, the market, the residences, the playground, etc. As a child, these "roads" in your head are built depending on the experiences that you have. This is why adults have to be conscious of the brain-shaping role they have on children.
As the roads that connect the "thinking" part and the "impulse" part begin to be built, your impulses will soon no longer be the sovereign empress of your own reactions. Your once royal impulses are now checked by the road signs – "slow down," "caution," "vertical clearance," "slippery when wet," "sharp turns," "blind curves," and most of all, "stop" – installed by the reasonable, more grounded commoners who are the highway workers from your "thinking" part.
This is why it is definitely not a virtue to blurt the first thing that comes to your mind. That is not honesty. That is a demonstration of the poverty of the roadwork in your brain. So when we see anyone – commoners, royalty, or politicians – rant with their raw feelings, that is not sincerity. That is a reflection of how much they have missed their chances in life to do inner work, whether intentionally or by negligence.
The study I mentioned confirms this even more. They had 51 participants look at happy, angry, and surprised faces to see how they would rate them to be either positive or negative. Then they had them come back a week later to show them fearful, surprised, and neutral faces. This time, they hooked the subjects in MRI machines so they can see brain activity. They checked to see what happens in the brains of these people when they judge "uncertain" facial expressions.
They found several things. They found that a negative response is not only the faster response, but also the easier response. They found that the brain work involved in a negative response is relatively low compared to a positive response. Some science news on this study called "being negative in the face of uncertainty," the "lazy" response of the brain. I think it is, but negativity can also be considered a dangerous response, since it can easily activate hostile feelings.
Imagine leaders who, in the face of complex (and therefore low on certainty) issues such as migration, drugs, gender, or any other multi-thorned issue, act on impulse alone and be negative. That brain state would not take the time to understand the many dimensions of the complex issues, will not engage in many ways to solve the problem, and will not involve many sectors to help address it, because that takes a lot of back and forth between the roads of brain regions, and those roads do not exist or have been poorly constructed in their brains.
Another thing they found was that people who had stronger connections between their "thinking" (prefrontal cortex) and "impulse" (amygdala) regions were the ones who had a positive response to uncertain faces, and that they also recruited those connections when they were asked to reframe their negative response to a positive one. This is proof of the vital role of those connections in checking impulses. For people who were negative in their default responses to ambiguity, they had remarkable activity only in their "impulse" brain regions, largely uninformed by the road signs from the "thinking" region of the brain.
In real life, impulses take the form of rants, tantrums, rattling a litany of complaints, a glorious chain of curses interrupted only by inhalation, screaming, banging, hitting someone or something, or any other reaction that do not really change the state of things for the better. Impulse reactions really just serve the one who is unleashing his or her impulses. No one else benefits from impulse.
The study also found that generally, older people are really more positive in the face of uncertainty. As I said, they have had more chances to build those connections in their brains to check their impulses. They have also experienced enough to know that negativity is really a bummer when it comes to getting anything done at all in life. To know that, you do not even need to find a scientific study. You just have to listen to the family conversations, especially among the older members of your family, during the upcoming All Souls' Day holidays, and you will see that unless you have unimpeachable data that leaves you no other response but a negative one, the rest of life is largely uncertain, and the ones who can deal with that positively are the triumphant ones (and most likely, the most lovable ones).
This kind of inner roadwork that maturity calls for can happen in young people faster too if we adults are able to help design experiences for them that could forge these connections. It can be in formal education, mentoring, or best of all, by example.
Being negative and impulsive is a natural response of the brain, but so is being positive and more thoughtful. Maturity is inner roadwork between brain parts so that you do not run off a cliff launched by your impulses, or worse, bring others crashing with you. Feel, think, and then most of all, think again. And yet again. Then, if you really should, speak or act. Your one and only life is worth the brainwork. Promise. – Rappler.com
Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.