Sarah Smith Nessel — pity the beleagured prefrontal cortex

08/20/2013 3:24 PM

08/20/2013 3:24 PM

I never should have bragged about the bats.

OK, I wasn’t bragging, exactly, but I did tell my sister-in-law, as we sat in her beautiful West Coast backyard one recent evening, that what my own yard lacked in elegance, it made up for in pest control, thanks to a neighborhood colony of mosquito-eating flying mammals.

It was about 30 hours later that we called the police, because when you arrive home in the middle of the night exhausted from traveling all day and find that mosquito-eating flying mammals have moved into two of your bedrooms, calling the police seems perfectly rational.

Did you know that even if it’s been decades since you last slammed a door, sprinted down a flight of stairs or screamed at the top of your lungs, you never forget how? It’s just like riding a bike. Even if you’re a 58-year-old man.

The police were very nice about my husband’s panicked call. This being Leawood and all, I don’t think they’re super-busy at 2 a.m. They didn’t even lecture us about inappropriate use of 911, probably because they could hear the frantic flapping and thumping of what sounded like two full-fledged Draculas behind those bedroom doors.

With the help of an incredibly brave animal-control officer, whose salary I don’t know but can assure you is not nearly enough, our visitors were relocated the next morning. We cleaned the bedrooms and went on with our day.

Home invasions don’t turn out quite so well for other people. Just hours before we boarded the flight home, I read a front-page article in The Star on my iPad about “Project X” parties, in which idiotic teenagers smash their way through houses while the owners are away on vacation. It was not the most comforting thing to read while away on vacation.

These parties, inspired by a movie of the same name, have been going on all over the country for months now, and the amount of damage is stunning. Hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth, in some instances. Homes are sometimes uninhabitable for months.

And, being members of the digital generation, the perpetrators of course post photos of their handiwork online. They don’t seem to fear any consequences — and why should they? Their punishments are laughably light, in some cases consisting only of probation and community service.

Naturally, “experts” are weighing in. To what can we attribute this stunning lack of consideration for other human beings? Why, the immature teenage prefrontal cortex, of course.

Yes, times are tough for the teenage prefrontal cortex, which seems to have more difficulty maturing with each passing generation. Back in the 1980s, my own prefrontal cortex let me down on a regular basis by failing to stop me from driving over the speed limit. It once took three entire days off, during which I received two tickets.

Even though my lead foot caused no physical damage, I’m guessing that my consequences were greater than those of most “Project X” vandals. (Having an insurance agent who’s also your father turned out not to be so convenient after all.)

Do you have any idea how long it takes to pay off two speeding tickets and an insurance premium hike when you make less than $5 an hour (before taxes)? I do.

Prefrontal cortexes must be in a state of devolution, because I’m pretty sure that those of my great-grandparents were in top form by age 18. That’s when people back then were married, starting families, completely supporting themselves and, by all accounts, not ransacking houses.

Perhaps today’s digital overload is just too much for the beleaguered prefrontal cortex, which would be happy to mature if only there were not so many distractions. Keeping up with a dozen social media accounts on sites your parents have never heard of is hard work, after all. And that’s not even counting the effort required to maintain appearances on that lame old-person site, Facebook, so that Mom and Dad can pat themselves on the back and say they’re monitoring your online activity.

Here in our house, digital distractions clearly influence the youngest brain in residence, which this summer devoted itself almost entirely to searching YouTube for promotional clips of “Despicable Me 2.” An unfortunate detour into “The Colbert Report” introduced our son to the Anthony Weiner scandal, a lesson in prefrontal cortex immaturity if ever there was one.

Yet Weiner, the New York political establishment’s very own “Project X,” never seems to go away. He’s independently wealthy and immune to humiliation, so his prefrontal cortex has very little incentive to grow up.

Whether you’re a politician without shame or a teenager without sense, someone somewhere will try to offer a reasonable explanation for your behavior. The house-destruction parties will no doubt continue — Johnson County has seen at least two since the craze began — and the adolescent-psychology “experts” will no doubt come out of the woodwork, just like those insect-eating mammals in my neighborhood.

It’s tough to say which group is the battiest.

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