Posted by: zhak39 | January 26, 2007

Neuroscience and the Adolescent 101

“What you need to understand is that the part of your brain that is active when you want something is different then the part of your brain that is active when you get it.”

Chris may have been listening but he didn’t want to hear what I had to say–just as no one standing in the line that snaked out of the DMV and into December’s late afternoon gloom cared. For his fourteenth birthday, Chris endured two rites of passage–first trip to DMV and a visit to a tattoo parlor. To celebrate the anniversary of my giving birth to him, I got to watch.

“It’s like this, bud. When you want something there’s an area in the depth of your brain that starts to pulse with electric activity. It’s like a strobe light going ‘want, want, want, want.’ Now it doesn’t really matter what your head applies to that want. It’s not saying ‘want a million dollars,’ or ‘want world peace,’ or like you, ‘want my ears pierced.’ All its doing is saying ‘urg. want. now.’

Now you’ve wanted your ears pierced since, um, when?”

“Like, five, six.”

“Right. You’ve had this habitual pulsing activity deep in your brain all day every day since, well, since you were a baby going ‘want’ ‘want’ ‘want’ ‘want’ and when you were 5 or 6 another part of your brain started saying – ‘look, earrings, shiny.’ Your brain found an ‘it’ to go with the want. So now you have this back beat going wannit, and the harmony going ‘earrings’ Get it? ‘Wannit, earrings. Wannit, earrings. Wannit, wannit, wannit, earrings.’ That’s been going on in your head for 8 years.”

Chris is kind of smiling now.

“So this is part of you. You’ve lived with this song in your head for years and you think once you get your ears done it’ll be over. You’ll be satisfied. All of your patience and rational arguments and persuading and more waiting is finally coming to bear and you will be happy for the rest of your days. Satiation time.”

“Yeah, I’ll be happy when it’s all done.”

“But you won’t be satisfied.”

“I swear, mom, this is all that I want. This is it. I’m really happy about this.”

“I know, darling, and that’s why we’re standing out here in the cold. But what you need to understand is like this. You’ve got the ‘I wants’ going in the deep ancient reptile part of your brain. OK. And you have the ‘it’ part somewhere in your lobes. Now when you actually get what you want, the acquisition part, what do you think happens in your brain?”

“I stop wanting it because I’ve got it.”

“Nyet. That’s not how it works. When you get something your brain shoots off fireworks that fill your skull with feel good happy chemicals and you feel like you just ate a whole pan of Girardelli chocolate brownies. But still, you’re not satisfied. See acquisition, acquiring stuff has nothing to do with the ‘I want’ part. The ‘want, want, want’ may get drowned out for awhile but it keeps sending out that back beat. A week from now, a day from now your lobes will latch on to something else, your ‘wannit’ will say ‘yeah, something new, pay attention to me’ and you’ll be right back where you started. Acquisition never satisfies desire.”

His smile indicates that a part of him knows that this is true, but he can’t admit it and risk not getting what he has been reaching for so long.

“I don’t think you’re right, mom. Once I get this I won’t ever want anything again,” he tries to say but can’t keep a straight face.

“Word, dude,” a voice interrupts from the bundle of coats and scarves in front of us. A dark bald head emerges, the lobes decorated with 1/2 inch cubic zirconian. “What she say, ‘acquisition never satisfies desire?’ Your mom’s got the real Truth, little man.”

And as he turns away with a smile I see mothers in line nodding their heads, college students grinning and teenagers rolling their eyes.

Word. It’s the truth.


  1. So, did the little man get his ink?

  2. Not that doesn’t wash off. To be au courant one must get pierced by a body ornamentation professional at a tattoo shop and to do so at 14 in NC, that means a trip to the DMV to get a ‘non-driver’s’ license.

    There will be a ‘rest of the story’ as I have time.

    Incidentally, the other night he started saying ‘want, want, want.’ (It’s been four weeks and now it’s a ‘peri-oral’ ring.) I guess he really was listening.

  3. Makes me want to hear part 2 of the rest of the story.

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