The prefrontal cortex (frontal lobe) of the human brain is best known for controlling the executive functions such as planning, logical thinking, self-regulation and reasoning. The frontal lobe continues to develop into early adulthood, reaching full development in our early to mid-20s. This is the reason why many teenagers and young adults tend to make more high-risk decisions – they may not be able to fully think through the consequences of their choices before acting. Until the prefrontal cortex matures, our natural human curiosity is not yet tempered by a strong sense of logic and reasoning, so we tend to act on our impulses.
From an evolutionary perspective, one of the biggest benefits of this lengthy development period is that it enables humans to continue to learn. Remaining uninhibited encourages children and teens to try new things and test their limits, allowing them to experience many novel situations.
As fully mature adults, we still have the ability to learn, however, our executive functions can sometimes get in the way. We use our ability to reason to argue our opinions instead of listening to new ideas. Our sense of self-regulation inhibits our willingness to take a chance on something that may be unfamiliar or uncomfortable. And logic and planning prevent us from seeing innovative options that may be available to solve our problems. While these executive functions arguably help us to be more successful in many areas of life, at times we may tend to over-rely on them as an excuse for avoiding novel things.
In order to be completely open to learning, we need to be a little vulnerable and let go of the sense of control that we’ve become accustomed to as adults. It’s not about being reckless, but rather being less concerned about looking silly or failing – obstacles that hold us back from taking reasonable risks. When we’re young, trial and error is a way of life. If something goes wrong, we simply try something different, not worrying as much about the longer term consequences. As adults, we become zombies to our habits and often get stuck in analysis paralysis, shying away from novel situations rather than risking damage to our egos. (Click here for a brief “quiz” that will determine if you need to loosen up your executive functioning a bit.)
Zen Buddhist Monk, Shunryu Suzuki taught,”In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.” While years of life experience certainly increases our knowledge, it sometimes also causes us to forget that there are infinite perspectives and ideas. The moment we become unwilling to utter the words, “I don’t know“, we lose our potential to grow.
So, as you make resolutions for 2015, consider places in your life where you can consciously take risks. Make it a point to try something each day that falls outside of your comfort zone. For example, speak up more at work meetings (or if you tend to be the first to jump into discussions, wait a few minutes to hear what others have to say). Sign up for that Zumba class (yes, you’ll be lost the first few classes, but so was everyone else when they started). Leave the laundry behind and take a spontaneous weekend road trip to a place you haven’t yet traveled.
Even if we all live to be 100 years old, there will still be wonders to discover and perspectives to consider. Years of education and knowledge will no doubt make us smarter, but for wisdom, we sometimes need to let go of what we’ve been taught and instead open our eyes to what is possible.