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OMAIR AHMAD
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Omair Ahmad is a Delhi-based writer. His last book was Kingdom at the Centre of the World: Journeys into Bhutan (Aleph, 2013).

What Jurassic Park taught me about childhood

The late development of the prefrontal cortex in mammals and humans is usually seen in the fact that children are intensely curious, and often overestimate their own abilities. They also behave in an inappropriate manner and do not fully understand the consequences of their actions.

y physics teacher presented me with a copy of Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park when I was in eleventh grade, pointing out the flaw in the logic of the book, but also recommending it to me as a good example of illustrating some cutting edge understanding about Chaos Theory. While most people will have seen the movies rather than read the book, one of the critical small themes in the book was the under-development of the velociraptors. In the book the first hint is given when the scientists encounter a nest, but it is improperly maintained and some of the eggs are smashed. Later Crichton brings out details of how, in higher order mammalian predators such as wolves, social learning is an important part of maturity. This is because wolves (and in Jurassic Park, velociraptors) hunt large prey in packs. To successfully hunt large animals in groups, the individuals that make up the group need to understand group behaviour. This cannot be merely bred in, but must be taught and learned. Individuals who fail to learn well become a liability to themselves and the group, and the group that is made up of bad learners is liable to fail.

Childhood is a time of learning, and nobody does childhood better than humans. In fact recent studies indicate that for some individuals brain growth happens well into the early 20s, but even if we take a cut-off of 18 years, humans take far longer to mature than any other animal ­— in fact most animals do not live as long as it takes for a human to fully mature. One major reason for all of this is the human brain is such a large one. That means when we are born our brains are not fully formed and go on increasing in size for much longer than any other animal. This has usually been the reason that scientists have presented for the long childhood of humans — that the developmental patterns of our brain is so long that it requires those long extra years. But there is more to childhood than simply less intelligence because of smaller brains, it is also about what parts of the brain develop.

The last part of the brain to fully develop is the prefrontal cortex — as its name suggests it is the area that is in the front area of the brain. Over time we have identified this area as where the "executive functions" of the brain are, where the final "decisions" are made. The famous case of Phineas Gage, an American railway worker, who had an iron bar smash through the front of his skull in 1848, shone light on this. While Gage survived the horrible accident, the damage to his brain led to changes in behaviour. He became socially inept, swearing and violent, with less social control. Over the years the study of people with damage sustained to their prefrontal cortex has consistently shown this type of impairment. Although the brain has a great amount of plasticity — we have about 84 billion neurons in the brain and they can reshape their way to deal with damage to one part by duplicating ability in others — it seems that social control is very much a prefrontal cortex ability.

The late development of the prefrontal cortex in mammals and humans is usually seen in the fact that children are intensely curious, and often overestimate their own abilities. They also behave in an inappropriate manner and do not fully understand the consequences of their actions. This is why the military recruits at a young age (in fact most of the famous generals of history have been strikingly young) and why most societies punish juvenile behaviour very differently from adult behaviour. Over time evolutionary scientists have also come to assign a positive value to this long childhood. It helps a group to both learn and ingrain certain norms of behaviour. A constant pressure of having a younger group pushing boundaries keeps a group responsive and open to new challenges. We all notice how the younger amongst us adapt more easily to technological innovations, intuitively understanding video games and smartphones while older people struggle harder. The obvious corollary is that we must be able to make best use of this long childhood. Animals that are improperly trained during childhood suffer badly. For example introducing zoo-raised animals into the wild has been incredibly difficult and disheartening. For India, which is struggling to properly raise and train its large youth population this is a big challenge, and thus the Nobel Peace Prize for Kailash Satyarthi was a very important prize. If we do not value our children, if we do not secure for them a childhood environment that allows them to learn, to be free and to play, we are as doomed as the raptors in Jurassic Park — hardly the fate we would want.

 
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