Saturday, December 07, 2013

The Myth of the Adult

When we are kids, life's trajectory looks something like this: struggle through childhood with crappy unfinished brains, then at some point, make a transition to adulthood, in which our brains are complete, mature, and equipped to handle what life throws at us.

Calvin and Hobbes: Moving On, by Zatransis
Calvin and Hobbes: Moving On, by Zatransis

Every adult knows that's bullshit. And every kid has a moment of waking up and thinking, "wait a minute, I'm thirty years old, wasn't I supposed to have transformed into an adult by now?"

The adult is a myth. Older brains are just kid brains jammed with more information. We still have the same impulses, the same cognitive biases, the same desire to stop being so damn responsible and just go outside to play. The additional information that experience brings allows us to overcome some of that kiddy stuff, usually, and survive in a hostile world. But just barely.

If the adult did exist, you'd expect to see it in the higher echelons of human achievement. Yet from the greatest scientists to the most influential artists to the mayor of the country's largest city, all you see are oversized kids trying to stay out of various cookie jars.

The same principle applies to our maturation as a species. One of the most humbling facts of life is that all of these skyscrapers and spaceships and smartphones were created by exactly the same brains that were blown away by sharpened stones 200 000 years ago. The modern Homo sapiens brain is just an early human brain jammed with more information.

This could be depressing, but I don't think it is. Instead it's impressive; we've accomplished so much in spite of trying to live up to unrealistic myths. Or maybe it's because of unrealistic myths. If we aspire to mythical adulthood, we can at least fake it long enough to turn life experience and culture into something wonderful. Yet we shouldn't forget our roots; sometimes we need to take off the stupid adult suit and just go outside to play.