Psychological Neoteny: Bruce Charlton’s View

The problems of the neotenous society, and psychological neoteny, have received extensive coverage on another Al Fin blog. But it seems that I am not the only one to ride this particular hobbyhorse. Bruce Charlton is an Evolutionary Psychiatrist at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. Charlton is the author of a fascinating online ebook–The Modernization Imperative–and was featured in a Discovery Channel news article earlier this year.

…it seems a growing number of people are retaining the behaviors and attitudes associated with youth.

As a consequence, many older people simply never achieve mental adulthood, according to a leading expert on evolutionary psychiatry.

…Formal education now extends well past physical maturity, leaving students with minds that are, he said, “unfinished.”

“The psychological neoteny effect of formal education is an accidental by-product — the main role of education is to increase general, abstract intelligence and prepare for economic activity,” he explained.

“But formal education requires a child-like stance of receptivity to new learning, and cognitive flexibility.”

“When formal education continues into the early twenties,” he continued, “it probably, to an extent, counteracts the attainment of psychological maturity, which would otherwise occur at about this age.”

Charlton pointed out that past cultures often marked the advent of adulthood with initiation ceremonies.

While the human mind responds to new information over the course of any individual’s lifetime, Charlton argues that past physical environments were more stable and allowed for a state of psychological maturity. In hunter-gatherer societies, that maturity was probably achieved during a person’s late teens or early twenties, he said.

“By contrast, many modern adults fail to attain this maturity, and such failure is common and indeed characteristic of highly educated and, on the whole, effective and socially valuable people,” he said.

People such as academics, teachers, scientists and many other professionals are often strikingly immature outside of their strictly specialist competence in the sense of being unpredictable, unbalanced in priorities, and tending to overreact.”Source.

Isolating children and young adults inside classrooms, away from the productive world and meaningful responsibility, will probably result in large numbers of “failure-to-mature” adults, as we see in modern western societies. Immature adults are unprepared to face the momentous challenges that western civilisation faces today. There are many “micro-pockets” of maturity within these societies–small arenas where teens and young adults are faced with meaningful responsibility, and acquire useful competencies.

These micro-pockets of reality necessarily exist outside of school curricula.

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