Archive for February, 2015

This is your brain until you’re 25

Incomplete. Not fully developed. Unfinished.

A few times at work recently, I’ve run into a neurological fact that kind of unnerves me: The brain isn’t fully developed until we reach age 25.

More specifically, the prefrontal cortex, the area that helps control impulses and weigh potential outcomes, doesn’t function fully until our mid-twenties, according to neurological research, a news report on the radio and more neurological research cited by the smartest 14-year-old I’ve ever spoken with.

“Umm, really?” was my first reaction to hearing this shocking bit of human development trivia. I call it shocking because it is. If our brains aren’t fully developed until we’re 25, how are we able to graduate college at 22 or drink beer (legally) at 21 or graduate high school and enter the military at 18 or get licensed to drive at 16? How are we able to feel like we’re fully functioning human beings by the first age when we gain any self-awareness? How are we able to make friends and remember birthdays and navigate cities and do all these things if our brains aren’t operating at 100 percent capacity? And how is that fair?

Maybe I’m reacting rather strongly to this because I’d simply never heard it before. Maybe it’s because I was lucky enough to progress through all of my school years believing I had a brain that was backing me up at all times, through thick and thin, parties and finals, good decisions and bad. Maybe I did. Hopefully I still do.

Maybe all this brain news means is we’re still growing and learning and improving through our late teens and up until our mid-twenties. And maybe I should be totally on board with that. I’m in favor of striving for self improvement and working to become a better person. Turns out my brain was, too (until a couple of years ago), because it was still growing.

The genius 14-year-old who was about the third person to relay this brain knowledge to me gave me a slightly different perspective on it. It’s not that the teenage brain can’t function or is completely impaired by the not-quite-complete development of the prefrontal cortex. It’s just that teenagers have to pause and think about decisions to shift the mental activity away from the part of the brain that’s not ready yet into other sections that are firing on all cylinders.

Saying our brains aren’t fully developed until we’re 25 isn’t saying our lives don’t matter until we’re 25, or we’re incapable of doing great things until we’re 25 or we can’t think for ourselves until that magical age when we’re allowed to rent a car. It’s just saying that mentally, we’re still a work in progress. I learned this a little late in the game, but the more I think about it, the more it fits.

Because what is life but a process of continuous growth?

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A wintry open letter to … the vanity plate drivers of Chicagoland

Dear My ROSE 1,
Is your first name Derrick? It should be.

Dear FLAGS 99,
Sheldon, the guy from “The Big Bang Theory,” would have a field day with you. And your 99 flags.

Dear BID OFFR,
Is a big bid offer what allowed you to buy this car?

Dear SLO RUN,
I’m a little surprised I’m behind you … But any run is a good run!

Dear MKY ERS 8,
You, and the eight members of your Mickey Mouse-loving family, belong in Florida, not Illinois.

Dear SNEEZY D,
For some reason, your license plate made me think of Snooki, not of Snow White’s dwarfs. Take some Allegra already.

Dear FUZZIE 1,
There are conventions for people like you. And they always manage to make strange news.

Dear BAGELS,
I WANT TO EAT YOU.

Dear HVN BND 3,
I wrote down your license plate and can’t remember why. Oh, wait! You think you’re “heaven bound,” that must be it! I’m glad to be following you, even if only for one traffic light!

Dear RDN SOLO,
Sounds like you’re single and proud of it – more power to ya!

Dear FML BUG 4,
Today, I saw a gray Volkswagon bug convertible long after my friend, who slug-bugged me when I was least expecting it. FML.

Dear SEEYA35,
Wouldn’t wanna be ya … Sorry, couldn’t resist.

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The texting clues to our twenty-something lives

If the twenty-somethings of today were to vanish completely from the Earth, leaving only our cellphones or text message records behind, we would actually give the anthropologists of the future some pretty good clues into what matters in our lives.

We care about our moms and our friends. We communicate differently with our dads than with our coworkers. We can make a joke out of anything. We’re not always very prompt; we sometimes ignore each other. Acronyms have taken over for real words and most messages are short – no matter how important.

We text frequently, staying in almost constant communication with people like our BFFs or
boyfriend/girlfriend/partners. Distance might be an obstacle, but we don’t let it get in the way of our friendships or family connections.

Read through someone’s texts and you can see all of this and more.

When one of my close friends from college included me and another close friend on a group text to tell us some exciting news, I was impressed again at the variety of messages our texting conversations can carry.

This particular chain started out about an engagement. The guy who texted the other two of us sent a photo of his girlfriend’s left hand with a simple, beautiful, diamond engagement ring. There were no words, only a smiley face type thing that looked like this :-)! Proving another point about distance, these texts were traveling between Chicago, the Western suburbs and Hawaii, of all wonderful places.

Anyway, after some enthusiastic congratulations, the conversation shifted to getting the group back together, to music – one of our favorite topics – and to an old memory of building an igloo as 21-year-olds, just to sit in it and drink beer. (Not just any beer, we’re talking snow-chilled Coors Light. It was fanstastic.)

The whole thing certainly made me smile, but look through the other texts I had on my phone at the time, and the anthropologists of the future could see that my life has a lot to do with variety.
There’s work and play, family, friends and love. And a big bunch of random.

A source for a story at work who happens to be a heroin addict. Two separate text chains of friends praising me for another story I wrote about the cause of death of a Chicago Blackhawks staff member. A school board member who was asking me if my newspaper had any pictures that she could use for her re-election website. One of those five-digit numbers I texted to vote for a player for the NBA all-star game (I chose Butler, Jimmy Butler of the Bulls, that is). And then that fantastic news of my friend’s engagement.

Texting is only one way we communicate and I’m quick to caution about its limits in conveying tone, body language, emotion and sarcasm. I shy away from texting things that are really important, when I can. But I might as well admit that what’s in my texts is a good reflection of my life. And if it continues to show a whole lot of variety, I’m happy to keep it that way.

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In the ABCs of Twenty-something life, O is for Outdoors

Over the weekend, my Prius and I took advantage of a preferred parking spot for fuel-efficient vehicles at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle. Not because I’m lazy or because I think driving a hybrid makes me special — there’s a great South Park episode to prove otherwise — but just because it’s darn cold.

The outdoors this season are a frozen tundra of chilly annoyance, icy driving hazards and poorly timed snowstorms, and I want to avoid all that as much as possible. Avoiding the outdoors, though, is not my style the rest of the year. I love being outside.

I’ll run, bike, walk, read, write, eat or even nap outside if I’m not going boating, water skiing, tubing, kayaking, Frisbee golfing or stand-up paddling, unless I’m playing basketball, tennis or soccer. Being outdoors and experiencing nature makes life better, they say, and I’m a big believer… Three-quarters of the year.

The problem with winter is it steals the outdoors from our easy enjoyment. Sure there’s snowshoeing and sledding and cross-country skiing, winter running at Santa 5Ks and hiking while bundled like an eskimo. But all of that requires the extra effort of dressing properly for the cold.

Around the holidays, there’s plenty of darkness and time to drive around checking out Christmas lights, but that’s not really being outdoors. There’s walking to the car from the office or the gym or the grocery store or your favorite sports bar or your best friend’s place, but that doesn’t leave any time to enjoy being outside — just long enough to stare at parking lot pavement and wish upon a snowflake for spring.

The problem with winter, for those of us who have mostly outdoor hobbies, is it leaves us with very little to do when the temperature makes it impossible, unbearable or at least unpleasant to be outside for more than 5 minutes. And I’m definitely one of those people who has mostly outdoor hobbies, like my long list earlier proves.

I can read and write and eat inside, thankfully. I can run inside on treadmills, but the silly machines annoy me more and more every year. I can bike inside, too, on those stationary bikes where all I really do is move my legs up and down a little bit and read fitness magazines. I could play basketball inside … if I went to a fancier gym or drove 15 miles to a rec center with open gym hours and battled teenagers for court space. But what’s the point of all that?

The point is winter sucks when most of your enjoyment comes from being outside. Not always from being outside on its own, but from being outside AND, as in being outside and biking, or being outside and reading, or being outside and simply exploring the surroundings. That’s pretty tough to do when the mercury reads “you’re an idiot to be out here!”

There are plenty of reasons to complain when it’s cold  — constant goosebumps and shivers being the least of them — so I’m really not trying to add to the complainers’ chorus. I’m just trying to talk up the benefits of being outdoors, of hearing sounds that aren’t human-made, of discovering scenes off the beaten path, of learning and observing and watching the seasons change.

Let’s just hope this dreary season of minimal outdoor enjoyment changes soon to a spring of flowers and sunnier days and warmth.

Until then, I’ll be on the hunt for a new indoor hobby … Jigsaw puzzles, anyone?

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