What do you see in those old photos of yourself, the ones from early university or your first job? Maybe you’re wearing plaid bell-bottoms, high-top runners with three-inch-thick platform soles and a white top hat, wasted on tequila body shots in the backyard pool of nobody you know, convinced that Dave Matthews’ lyrics really mean something.
“What was I thinking?” you repeatedly ask yourself now, but there’s no answer because it’s quite possible that you’ll never be able to understand your 19-year-old self. After all, you’re no longer even remotely wired to think like your 19-year-old self. That was the wormlike caterpillar to your majestic butterfly, the helpless polliwog to your vaulting frog, the river to your sea, the Beatles to your Wings. No, wait … scratch that last one.
But that 19-year-old is dead and gone. You are not simply a version of him with less hair, more paunch, a sensible car and a mortgage. No, the two of you were only ever barely related, just two ships that passed in the night with scarcely a genetically glimmering wink of recognition.
In Ontario, 19 is the legal age at which consuming alcohol (and cigarettes and now pot) is permitted, considered by some to be the final threshold to adulthood (driving, voting and adult sentencing at court all happen earlier). But many argue that the arbitrary checkmark on our developmental timeline, when we toss our young from the nest, is premature. The human brain isn’t fully developed until the age of about 25, when the prefrontal cortex, the last area to completely form, matures.
This is unfortunate for many 19-year-olds (and as often their parents, teachers, employers, partners, etc.) as it’s the prefrontal cortex that informs planning and decision-making and moderates social behaviour and impulse control. It differentiates conflicting thoughts, determines the difference between good and bad, and attaches consequences to actions.
At 19, with our brains only partway formed, it’s the amygdalae, clumps of neurons located deep in our medial temporal lobes, that do much of the thinking. Ram a pair of steel rods straight back through your eyes, and another through your ears (no, actually, please don’t) — the two intersections would approximately mark the locations of your amygdalae, where emotional stress responses such as fear, anger and sadness live, where fight-or-flight decisions are made. It’s where the dials controlling your heart rate and blood pressure are turned up to 11 when one or more of your senses detects trouble. It’s tied to testosterone levels, and the size of your amygdalae has been directly linked to aggression and physical behaviour.
In other words, it’s the perfect home for a 19-year-old.
“I would there were no age between ten and three and twenty,” says a shepherd in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. “For there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing (and) fighting.”
What has changed in the 400 years since the Bard’s observation? Some of our language, perhaps, but not 19-year-olds. Sex, drugs and wronging the ancientry. Lather, rinse, repeat. If 19 were a cocktail, its ingredients would be bravado, adrenaline, pheromones, THC, gasoline and potato chips.
On the whole, Canadians die as the result of cancer and heart disease. This is not true of 19-year-olds, who tend to die riskier, more dramatic deaths, succumbing most frequently to accidents — typically car crashes — and suicide, with cancer and assault taking the No. 3 and 4 spots, respectively. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is around this time that the influence of peer pressure is at its highest — older teens are far more likely to take unnecessary chances when they’re with their friends. I mean, what could go wrong, right? Things simply don’t look that high/fast/steep/hot/sharp/perilous from the 19th floor.
But by and large, 19-year-olds somehow survive their year of living dangerously and successfully graduate from their teens to their 20s, one more year closer to safety. They eventually trade their top hat for a flatcap and their 428 hp Camaro SS for a four-door Ford Fusion Hybrid (“No, it’s not so quick, but the fuel mileage is unbelievable!”). Thoughts that formerly began and ended with “Wouldn’t it be fun to jump off of X?” start acquiring caveats: “… but what if…?” and “… on the other hand…” Any 19-year-olds reading this will immediately recognize how utterly boring it sounds, and it is. But it’s perhaps the best way to ensure that they’ll get to give the same advice to THEIR 19-year-olds.
So as we enter 2019 and this century’s 19th birthday, let us hope that some of the unseemly and over-torqued discourse that has entered our and others’ larger body politic of late is just part of a new era’s adolescent stage. Let us patiently endure the random and ill-thought-out synaptic firings of a phase still finding its way, (reasonably) safe in the knowledge that more grey matter will be arriving any day now to relieve the black and white.
And by 2024, we’ll look back on all this and laugh at how crazy we were.
If you could travel back in time and talk to yourself at age 19 — that age of potential, idealism and, oh yes, insecurity — what words of wisdom would you offer? We asked some Ottawans for their thoughts as we start 2019.
Note from WSOE.Org : This content has been auto-generated from a syndicated feed.