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via TikTok

Why is everyone so obsessed with frontal lobe development?

For young people left ‘stunted’ by the pandemic and recession, 25 is the new 18

Your mascara is smudged and your nose is snotty. That returning gut-wrenching hollowness says it all: fuck. You’ve chosen wrong yet again: missed another deadline or slept with that arrogant prick; called your mate a dickhead or shown up at work a bit too hungover. It happens to the best of us. But no stress, babe – it’s not you. It’s just your underdeveloped frontal lobe. 

Gen Z has recently fostered an online obsession with the frontal lobe – also known as the prefrontal cortex – and the fact it’s normally only fully developed at 25. At this age, functions like planning, working memory, and impulse control’ finally reach maturation, and consequently, we’re all convinced our 25th year will bring improved decision-making skills and fewer personal fuck-ups.

It’s unsurprising that frontal lobe development is a hot talking point among Gen Z, as the oldest zoomers are now turning 25. On TikTok, #frontallobe currently has 29.3 million views, while Twitter users continuously anticipate the oncoming maturation that will, definitely, definitely, make everything better. For Lotus, turning 25 in July did actually bring about huge emotional changes. In a since-deleted TikTok, they appear content and serene, with the video captioned: “POV: You turn 25 wid your frontal lobe fully developed”.

This isn’t just some totally wacky TikTok pseudoscience, either. Dr Sarah MacPherson is head of psychology at the University of Edinburgh, and specialises in frontal brain functions. Speaking to Dazed, she explains that the prefrontal cortex can be subdivided into different regions. One area known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is responsible for executive functioning, or “regulating and directing our thinking, emotional and motor activity,” as Dr MacPherson puts it. Meanwhile, another area called the orbitofrontal cortex is key in “anticipating and receiving awards”.

And, yes, these parts of the brain take time to mature. “Differences in the maturation rates of these distinct frontal regions and their connections with other brain regions may explain why young adults make more emotional and less rational decisions, and demonstrate increased sensation-seeking and risk-taking,” says Dr MacPherson.

This chimes with Lotus, who now sees the first 25 years of their life with fresh clarity. “I would stay in certain situations, simply out of comfort, knowing that they weren’t good for me,” they say. Now, they explain, things are different. “I think I just make better decisions for myself.”

Some people have even claimed that they can feel their frontal lobe developing.I’ll be 25 in EXACTLY a week, and I can physically feel my frontal lobe fully developing... my forehead is growing like a Beluga whale,” one Twitter user wrote. (Although, obviously, as McPherson says, “this is unlikely because the brain has no nerve endings, which means that your brain can’t feel pain.”)

Like many other young people, 22-year-old Cam works a minimum wage job and, although the work is fine and they’re pretty happy, it’s not the sort of swish graduate role that many of our university-educated parents enjoyed after leaving higher education. “Our parents had children a lot younger and had more secure jobs a lot younger,” they say. Because, of course, our experience of ‘growing up’ isn’t just influenced by what’s going on inside our brains – it’s also impacted by external factors, too.

46 per cent of Gen Z don’t plan on having kids – perhaps because comfortably raising a family now costs 46 per cent more than it did in 2008. The price of a house is now, on average, 7.1 times the average annual income, while in 1983, it was just 2.7 times the annual salary. Kids and marriages, mortgages and job stability – these traditional milestones have been pushed far out of our reach. Additionally, thanks to COVID, young people have spent a sizable chunk of their early twenties holed up in their childhood bedrooms, rather than celebrating graduations or 21st birthday parties. Cam theorises that missing out on formative experiences like these have made us feel “childlike” – and research has even found that the events of 2020 left young people “stunted”.

Naturally, this has made many of us desperate to extend our adolescence: we want to make bad decisions and wake up regretful the next day, with an Elf bar-induced cough and an embarrassingly explicit Instagram story. And so, it seems, we’ve collectively decided to make 25 the new 18, pointing to the stages of frontal lobe development to push the theory forward.

But oversimplification is risky. As Dr MacPherson explains, “There is a continuous increase in the ability of the executive network to organise our thoughts and behaviour during adolescence.” In other words, you can’t go through your late teens and early twenties blaming your totally underdeveloped brain for sleeping with your ex – and you won’t wake up on your 25th birthday with impulse control gained overnight. We hate to admit it, but growing up is, unfortunately, not a process in which we can be passive.

@wayl0r Drafting an email & suddenly realizing that advice you always ignore was true all along 💀 #kobeyear #year24 #adulting #fyf #neuroscience #frontallobe #neurology #brain #brainscience #24 ♬ Use this sound of your straight - Ali 😨😨❤️🇧🇭

Regardless, we’ve come to adopt this oncoming maturation as both an excuse and a comfort. An excuse to act up and treat each other a little shitty; a comfort to believe that both our own mistakes and those of the ones we love – friend, partner, two-year situationship – will stop hurting so much. As Cam puts it: “it’s such a safety blanket.” This frontal lobe chat isn’t meant to be taken as psychological and scientific gospel anyway – rather, it belongs to a subset of cynical absurdity that has become our well-worn coping mechanism. For Lotus, this obsession is something distinctly ‘Gen Z’. “We kind of trivialise everything,” they say. For Cam, some of it’s relatable and the rest, they say, “is kind of funny, I guess.”

The material conditions of our daily lives are, evidently, currently quite grim. NHS beds are filling up, food bank queues are getting longer, and yet another oil field is looking likely. We’re desperate for a concrete, biological explanation for our all-too-physical problems. When we mythologise our immature frontal lobe and all its mistakes, our everyday despair is no longer because of Rishi Sunak or greedy landlords or even our parents’ attachment style – and there’s something strangely liberating in that. 

That said, the choices we make before age 25 do ‘count’ – regardless of frontal lobe maturity. But that’s how growing up is supposed to be: a little messy, a little dysfunctional. However painful it may feel, making mistakes is part of maturing – and turning 25 won’t magically stop you stalking your ex on Instagram or blaming your dirty dishes on your flatmate. And in any case, maturity is more about how you feel in your heart, rather than what’s going on in your head (literally). Age is just a number, after all.

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