When is the Brain “Mature”?

In the New York state budget just passed by Albany, legislators will raise the age to be tried as an adult from 16 to 18 years. New York was one of only two states left in the US that prosecuted youth as adults when they turned 16–now North Carolina stands on its own.

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In the US, law and policy have struggled to determine an accurate age to judge people mature and accountable, but new scientific findings regarding the brain, adolescence, and neurodevelopment counter the idea that we can pinpoint one age for everyone.

“We’re learning that there isn’t a one-size fits all message for when an individual reaches maturity, nor a one-size fits all method for even how we should measure maturity when it comes to the brain,” says Abigail Baird, a developmental neuroscientist at Vassar College and a Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives (DABI) member, in our new briefing paper on defining maturity. “It would be great if, say, this one spot in the brain turns blue when you are fully mature. But it doesn’t work like that.

And it’s not just biology–context matters, too, says Allan Reiss, a pediatric psychiatrist at Stanford University and DABI member:

“The brain is always in somewhat of a dynamic state. There are certain developmental periods where it’s more dynamic than others, such as the teenage years and young adulthood,” he says. “But you can’t say it gets to a certain point and is mature. The brain continues to mature in different ways throughout your life. And whether a brain is mature, or finished with those dynamic states of development you see in adolescence, may not be the right question—especially if we are considering society and public policy. Perhaps we should be asking a different question, which is, ‘What is the average age at which human beings are likely to make rational decisions about important events in their lives?’” And the answer is going to be, ‘It depends.’ It depends on the person, the kind of decision you are trying to make, and what’s happening around you when you are trying to make that decision. Context is important. All those factors play a role and influence how well you can make those decisions.”

Hear more from the developmental neuroscience community and legal and policy minds by reading the full briefing paper, “When is the brain ‘mature’?”

– Ann L. Whitman

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