The Age of Reason

Around 8 years old the brain begins to develop dramatically the dominant hemisphere – the period from age 8 to 12 is marked by the expansion and setting up of most of the specific intellectual strategies for decision making and planning. We can refer to this as the age of reason.

Most of these strategies are installed by modelling the adult behaviour available around – mostly following the TOTE (Trigger, Operation, Test, Exit) model – as an example, an 11-year-old might get home and notice his tablet on the sofa (Trigger) and start playing a new game(Operation) When he gets to the next level or wins the game. He will probably have a sense of satisfaction (Test) which will determine him to switch it off (Exit). Unlike the previous stage, this time the beliefs about intellectual capability and the potential for success are laid down.

This shift to “logical”, conscious mind, processing is paralleled by a shift in moral thinking. They begin to evolve from the very concrete black and white right or wrong (“If you break three plates, even accidentally, while helping Mum, it’s worse than if you break one plate in anger”) to a more internalised sense of right and wrong, so that their own “conscience” monitors their behaviour. In this and other ways, the seven-year-old is an independent agent, “energetically separate” from their parents.

The ability of the seven-year-old to understand the position of another person or even to step inside the observer visually is now complete, as are other subtle external visual skills such as peripheral vision and fine colour discrimination. In many ways, the person in middle childhood seems able to perform all the tasks we expect from citizens in our culture. Indeed, until about two centuries ago, they would often begin “earning their keep”. But the development of their neurology still has one major surprise in store: Puberty.

The hypothalamus is a gland deep within the brain. Once it has matured sufficiently (two years earlier in girls than in boys) it overrides the inhibition of sex hormones and triggers a massive change in the neurology. Reproductively, this results in menstruation somewhere between 9.5 and 15.5 years of age in girls, and first nocturnal emissions of semen somewhere between 11.5 and 17.5 years of age in boys. It results in a growth spurt, in the change in relative size of breasts and sexual organs, and in significant emotional shifts.

Significant changes in thinking style tend to occur as a result of puberty in our society. One is the development of abstract thought. While the child asks “Why?”, “What?” and “How?”, the adolescent is more fully able to ask “What if?”. This enables them to be both more idealistic (espousing religious or political causes) and more cynical (rejecting social sham). It enables them to conduct complex “thought experiments” rather than only step by step concrete operations. It also makes them even more able to take a second or third position. In clarifying who they are and what role they have in relationship to others, adolescents are often keenly self-conscious, to the extent of “posing” for an imaginary camera, constantly checking others’ perception of them. The adolescent’s success in creating a sense of identity is reflected in the quality of the one-to-one relationships they are able to create. This is the age when significant imprints are laid down about “identity” and about the person’s potential to create loving relationships.