Teenage angst gets a bad rap. Psychologists call it a search for identity. Biologists talk about hormones. And the music business calls it emo.
In January, we noted that a study at the Salk Institute conducted on roundworms suggests that teenage ambivalence could have an evolutionary purpose. The wishy-washy behavior that is so indicative of the teenage experience (one day it’s charm bracelets, the next day glow sticks!) could be the teenage brain’s way of keeping its options open in uncertain times. The noncommittal brain isn’t saying “yes, no, maybe so” because it’s trying to infuriate its parents. It’s doing so in order to keep its options open until time and experience reveal the best course of action.
The experiment began by placing microscopic Caenorhabditis elegans worms at various stages in growth in the (not-so-proverbial) petri dish. Scientists dabbed two scents on each side of the dish. The first side had a neutral odor. The second side contained the chemical diacetyl, more informally known as “buttered popcorn smell”—which, it turns out, is a regular part of that worm’s diet.
Over multiple trials, scientists observed that adult worms went straight for the diacetyl, while the adolescent worms took their sweet time. They went left, they went right; sometimes they did not make it to the diacetyl at all.
“It’s like the younger worms are angsty teens,” says Laura Hale, a collaborative researcher at Salk and first author of the paper. “To watch their behavior, it’s as though they say, ‘Yeah, I know I’m supposed to go over there but I just don’t feel like it.”
Gossip Girl fans: sound familiar?
You don’t have to be a scientist to guess that the human teenage brain is significantly more complex than that of worms. Indeed, a human brain has 100 billion neurons; the worms of this experiment lay claim to a paltry 302. The Salk Institute, however, believes that their findings could apply to humans as well.
“These results support the idea that evolution works by making a juvenile plastic to learn a lot of things; then making an adult tuned to take advantage of that learning,” says Sreekanth Chalasani, associate professor in Salk’s Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory “Instead of merely being rebellious, teens—both humans and worms—may just be staying flexible to adapt to an unpredictable world.”
In other words, the worm’s way of squirming around, considering its options but not really making a choice, is a parallel action to teenagers who shuffle through different friends, clothes and ideas on a regular basis with no apparent basis. It’s the same thing that causes teenagers to refuse common sense principles, for seemingly no good reason at all. It’s the “To be, or not to be” mindset of the most angsty teenager of all time: Hamlet. Teenagers are not acting this way to be difficult. They’re doing it to be prepared.
This behavior, coupled with the study’s underlying thesis, could hold some fascinating insights on teenage rebellion. First of all, it points to an overarching grand design within nature that takes into account not just a teenager’s present position in the world, but the one they will inherit in the future as well.
Think about it. If teenagers are able to experiment with different philosophies, attitudes and lifestyles, they will be better equipped to make an informed decision what to do with their life once they hit the ripe age of 18 and are released upon the world (or, for those college graduates, somewhere closer to age 22). They’ll know enough about how they operate in certain situations to gauge their success in any given scenario. And with any luck, they’ll also know what not to do.
The second major implication of this study is the fact that if, indeed, the brain’s design contains some sort of genetic moratorium that stalls a definitive path of action, then nature has successfully constructed a safety net for the future. The brain’s reservations are a way to prevent against picking the wrong path in case, say, of a social revolution. Or a financial crash. Or economic boom. Whatever way the world spins, the teenage brain—with all its indecision—is actually designed to help teens achieve the best success possible in terms of not just survival, but how they will interact with society. And that, in turn, goes way beyond the scope of what any teenagers had in mind when choosing to blow everybody’s minds by going to prom with Billy and not Fred.
Photo by Leo Hidalgo, CC BY 2.0
Whatever the case, the study was clear on one thing. The teenage worms’ decision to amble around the petri dish, not choosing one side or the other, didn’t mean the their senses were impaired. (Worms of all ages scattered when introduced to a foul smell.) It simply meant that the teenage senses are different than adults. And that (Mom), is all you need to know—for now.
Main photo by Groman123, CC BY-SA 2.0.
Elisia Guerena is a Brooklyn based writer, who writes about tech, travel, feminism, and anything related to inner or outer space.