So you’ve finally reached your early to mid-twenties. Congratulations! Your brain’s prefrontal cortex is fully developed. Now you can expect a rich full life of recognizing the consequences of your actions. So long, reckless teenage behaviour; hello, maturity and wisdom. It’s nothing but sound judgement from here on in!
Or is it?
This article will teach you how to recognize when your prefrontal cortex is not working in your best interest and what you can do about it.
First let’s talk about the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is at the front of your brain, unless you’re lying face down, in which case from the viewer’s perspective it’s at the back of your brain. At this point, the viewer should probably roll you over or at very least make sure you’re still breathing.
The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that decides good from bad, socially acceptable responses from unacceptable responses, Coke from Pepsi, and so on. Scientists tell us that this part of the brain does not fully mature until age 21 to 25. Actually, scientists didn’t tell us this directly but wrote it on a Post-It and left it on our desk. So shy, those scientists.
Everyone has a prefrontal cortex located in the frontal lobe of their brain, just as every car engine has a doohickey located in the you-know. But just because you have the part doesn’t mean it’s a quality part. Your doohickey might be German-engineered, or it might be from the Dollar Tree. The same goes for your prefrontal cortex. A lot depends on your genetics and how much your mom drank before she realized she was pregnant and again even after she realized. In short, there is no ISO standard for prefrontal cortices or mothers.
Consequently, you can rely on your prefrontal cortex only so far.
Let’s say – just hypothetically, mind you – that you decide the night before to drive to Montreal in the morning to watch your daughter’s basketball game. But when you wake up, you discover that the highways are sheer ice. At this point, a little voice in your mature prefrontal cortex will say, “You should play it safe and stay home.” However, your spouse says in a much louder voice, “We’ll be fine.” Your prefrontal cortex shrugs and says, “Whatever.” It turns out your shoddy prefrontal cortex doesn’t have much conviction. And so you venture out.
As you creep along the highway at 50, then 30, then 10 km/h, literally sliding down the hills at times, you see ahead of you a car that has spun completely around on the ice. As you pass the car, its front end bent but the occupants unharmed, your eyes briefly lock with those of the driver. “Shoddy prefrontal cortex?” he seems to say, and you nod, ever so gently, because you don’t want to make any sudden movements and land in the ditch.
But the brain is an amazing thing, and even when the prefrontal cortex lets you down, other parts will take over, in particular the primitive parts that don’t want you to die. Thus, you arrive safely in Montreal and head towards the school where your daughter is playing. Mind you, your prefrontal cortex should have advised you to write down the directions to the school, but no…
At the school, as you watch your daughter’s game and dread the return drive home, the cognitive portion of your brain recognizes that both you and your spouse are wearing blue jeans and virtually identical grey wool sweaters, which the prefrontal cortex clearly wasn’t paying attention to when it was thinking about hittin’ the ol’ road. The frontal lobe is also responsible for long-term memories, which is why you think, “My God, we look like my parents when they left for Europe on their 25th anniversary dressed in identical brown polyester suits!”
You’re soon joined at the game by your oldest daughter, who foolishly stayed up most of the night because of her immature prefrontal cortex. This also explains the waffle in her pocket.
And now, after a drive back home in the rain and fog so thick you could barely see the road, you’ve unwisely gone and written about it all and publicly embarrassed your spouse and daughter. What a shoddy prefrontal cortex indeed!
So what can you do when your prefrontal cortex, despite years of evolution and, from all outward appearances, a decidedly sober mother, lets you down? Thankfully, there is a higher power you can turn to for help in making sound decisions: the weatherman. Always listen to the weatherman.