Is it sheer stupidity that makes teenagers take excessive risks? Neuroscience proposes that teen brains actually suffer from underdeveloped cognitive-control functions that are out of sync with fast developing neural reward-systems.
Teenagers are a puzzle, and not just to their parents. When kids pass from childhood to adolescence their mortality rate doubles, despite the fact that teenagers are stronger and faster than children as well as more resistant to disease. Parents and scientists alike abound with explanations. It is tempting to put it down to plain stupidity: Teenagers have not yet learned how to make good choices. But that is simply not true. Psychologists have found that teenagers are about as adept as adults at recognizing the risks of dangerous behavior. Something else is at work.
Scientists are finally figuring out what that “something” is. Our brains have networks of neurons that weigh the costs and benefits of potential actions. Together these networks calculate how valuable things are and how far we’ll go to get them, making judgments in hundredths of a second, far from our conscious awareness. Recent research reveals that teen brains go awry because they weigh those consequences in peculiar ways.
In teenagers only, the sight of a happy face triggered a significant response from the ventral striatum, a small patch of neurons located near the center of the brain. The ventral striatum is especially sensitive to dopamine, which produces a feeling of anticipation and helps the brain focus on reaching a goal. The ventral striatum produces bigger responses to bigger rewards, and in teens it is rigged up to an amplifier, making rewards seem more appealing still.
A separate network of regions in the front of the brain is responsible for evaluating conflicting impulses. This cognitive control network allows us to hold back an action that could deliver a short-term reward if it interferes with a long-term goal. The network grows very slowly over the first 25 years of life. As a result, it works poorly in childhood, better in teens, and even better in adults.
Neuroscientist B. J. Casey and her colleagues at the Sackler Institute of the Weill Cornell Medical College believe the unique way adolescents place value on things can be explained by a biological oddity. Within our reward circuitry we have two separate systems, one for calculating the value of rewards and another for assessing the risks involved in getting them. And they don’t always work together very well.
Casey was able to watch the cognitive control network in action. She and her colleagues analyzed the brain scans of volunteers while they kept themselves from hitting a key that they weren’t supposed to hit. At those moments, part of the cognitive control network, called the inferior frontal gyrus, was more active than it was at other times. When the scientists compared the cognitive control network response in people of different ages, they found a striking pattern. In children the network was the most active, in teenagers the activity was lower, and in adults it was lower still. Casey proposes that as the cognitive control network matures, it gets more efficient. The upshot is that as we age, we need to put less effort into holding ourselves back.
The trouble with teens, Casey suspects, is that they fall into a neurological gap. The rush of hormones at puberty helps drive the reward-system network toward maturity, but those hormones do nothing to speed up the cognitive control network. Instead, cognitive control slowly matures through childhood, adolescence, and into early adulthood. Until it catches up, teenagers are stuck with strong responses to rewards without much of a compensating response to the associated risks.
From an evolutionary point of view, the daredevil impulses of adolescents can be beneficial, Casey points out. Once a young mammal becomes sexually mature, it needs to leave its parents and strike out on its own. It must find its own supply of food and establish its place in the world of adults. In some mammal species, adolescence is a time for individuals to leave one group and find a new one. In others, it is a time to seek out sexual partners.
The reward system of the teenage brain may make adolescents more willing to face the risks that come with this daunting new stage of life. But with access to modern dangers like illegal drugs and fast cars, the human risks have increased. Evolution does not operate quickly enough to have reacted to such factors.
The brain’s heightened responses can also open the way for psychological troubles. Due to experience, environment, or genes, some teens may possess relatively low levels of cognitive control, making them particularly vulnerable to neurological signals of fear, Casey suggests. If the signals go unchecked, they may lead to anxiety, depression, or other disorders such as addiction. And even well-adjusted adolescents may be primed to choose the heart over the head—or, perhaps we should now say, the ventral striatum over the inferior frontal gyrus.
I don’t buy that art has an expiration date, and I can prove it. I ate week-old chili yesterday and look at me now. The problem with pop culture references in sitcoms isn’t that they become dated when future consumers (THINK OF THE CHILDREN!) are so far removed from the era of reference and, less saliently, so confounded by the contemporary worship of hollow, self-serious pretension as greatness that they can’t recall what the War on Terror was in general or the invasion of Iraq in specific, much less Michael Moore, Mission Accomplished, free speech zones, Peanuts, or the Soup Nazi, so they watch Arrested Development with stony-faced revulsion at the America which once embraced and glorified incest, embarrassed that their great-grandparents actually thought this American Oedipus (and then some) was funny. That’s on them, and stepping in on their behalf is the most feckless of concern trolling. When has not understanding something ever given one license to denounce it? I’m not going to ask my grandma her opinion on Islam. I can turn on Glenn Beck for myself, thankyouverymuch.
Whether a sitcom leans more on creative slapstick or witty wordplay or even, Oprah help us, pop culture references, durability comes from greatness—that is, the artful expression of meaning, depth, purpose, thesis if you wanna get all Aristotelian about it, Mr. Fancy Pants College Degree—not whether a show incorporates topical humor or not. You don’t need to have endured the hype for The English Patient—or even know that it’s a real movie—to identify with Elaine seeing through the emperor’s new clothes. You don’t need to scour Gawker and Mediaite to catch the fluid media satire of 30 Rock. The only Burt Reynolds movie I’ve ever seen is Boogie Nights, but Archer still makes me laugh more than any other show on TV. Reference humor is just one paintbrush, and it can shade character, comment, or overwhelm.
Mr. Im Cheon-Yong (45) was a captain of North Korean Special Forces. He is relatively short — not quite 170 cm [TK: 5’ 7”] — but had unusually large fists, reminiscent of a cartoon character. The fact that this reporter met an officer of North Korean military’s special combat unit became even more real after he explained, “I practiced punching several thousand times a day.” His handshake was firm and heavy.
Mr. Im spent 16 years at the assassination brigade of the “Storm Corps,” headquartered in Deokcheon, Pyeong’annam-do. Each corps of North Korean military contains a special combat brigade, but Storm Corps is not a brigade under another corps. It is a special combat corps, comprised of elite members of the special forces.
Speaking of the size of North Korea’s special forces, Mr. Im said, “each corps has one brigade, sometimes two. Each brigade has about 6000 to 8000 men, but the numbers vary,” and said, “it’s hard to be precise, but it is a sizable number.” He added, “Other than Storm Corps, there are other special combat troops such as 4.25 Training Camp, 8.15 Training Camp, 108 Training Camp.”
The training for special combat as told by Mr. Im was harsh as expected, and some parts beyond imagination. The training begins on 5 a.m. The fundamental of the training is to turn the entire body into steely firmness, and the basic part is training the fist.
Mr. Im said, “You would wrap a tree trunk with ropes, and keep punching it. You throw 5000 punches day and night — do that for a month, the inside of your fist swells up until you can barely curl your fingers.” He added, “Then you open a tin can and set it up on a stand. You keep punching the sharp part. When your hand turns into mush with blood and pus, you start punching a pile of salt. Repeat it, and your hands become like a stone.” Mr. Im explained, “You punch the salt so that the salt would prevent the hand from rotting away with the blood.” According to Mr. Im, with the hand trained like this “you can easily break 20 sheets of cement blocks, and you can kill a person with three punches.” His hands would naturally make a fist throughout the interview. This reporter had to respectfully ask that he unclench his fist during the interview.
The way to train shoulder and arm muscles was also unique. Mr. Im said, “You would take off your top, line up, put your hands on the shoulder of the person in front of you and put your head down. And then a car would drive on top of the outstretched arms.” He explained, “The car goes fast enough not to break your arms, but if you don’t concentrate your shoulder would be destroyed.”
In a martial art called “Gyeok-sul,” the special forces train by sparring each other. Mr. Im said, “Kim Il-Sung used to say he wanted a warrior who can defeat a hundred, but honestly that’s not possible. But we get trained enough to fight ten men without guns.”
In the winter, according to Mr. Im, the special forces are thrown into the sea around 4 km [TK: 2.5 miles] away. Mr. Im said, “The ocean temperature is about negative 30-40 degrees in North Korea in the middle of winter,” and said “The salt water feels like blades; the capillaries all over your body burst out, and some people just die there.” He added, “It used to be just throwing daggers at the target, shooting guns and punching, but nowadays we receive a lot of training on driving tanks and armored vehicles as well.”
According to Mr. Im, the winter training begins on December 1 to mid-April, and the summer training goes from late July to late September. The remainder is spent preparing for the training. October and November are particularly busy, as the troops procure firewood and food to stave over the winter.
Mr. Im said North Korean regime focused on the special combat brigades, providing them food and continuing the training even during the March of Struggles in the mid- to late 1990s. But he explains that recently, “The food situation is terrible, such that even special combat brigades get no more than porridge.”
Each company of the Storm Corps is assigned to a major city in South Korea as a terrorism target. The target for Mr. Im’s company was Chungju, Chungcheongbuk-do. As Mr. Im belonged to the assassination brigade, his mission was to assassinate the mayor of Chungju. The other members of the company had such missions as overtaking the broadcasting stations, gassing major locations and demolishing buildings. According to Mr. Im, a special combat company is divided into a regular patrolling brigade and assassination brigade. Patrolling brigade takes relatively light missions like building demolition or reconnaissance, while the assassination brigade takes on missions of higher difficulty such as kidnap/assassination of important persons or releasing toxic gas.
Mr. Im said, “But assassination was not tasked to just me — there would be double, triple layers in case of failure. For major personnel, there are at least three squads.” He said, “For example, if the mayor is a conservative while the deputy mayor is a leftist, the mission would be to assassinate only the mayor so that the politics would favor North Korea.” According to Mr. Im, “Until 1990s, the targets were military personnel like Jeong Ho-Yong (former Minister of Defense) or Park Hee-Do (former chief of the army),” and said, “until early 2000s, there were a lot of major officers of the [TK: conservative] Grand National Party on the target list. Especially Lee Hoi-Chang (head of the Jayou Party) was a must-kill target.”
One would enter the special combat corps around ages 16 and 17. After basic training, unlike regular soldiers who begin as a private, special combat corps skip four ranks to begin as second lieutenants. Assassination brigade would skip five ranks to begin as first lieutenants. Only those from the favored caste could enlist; Mr. Im said he could join because he belonged to the “impoverished peasant” class.
Mr. Im declined to explain why he defected, saying “my family and friends remaining in North Korea would suffer.” Mr. Im got rid of his home phone as he continued to receive threatening phone calls since he defected. Mr. Im said, “The phone calls would go something like, ‘Are you still doing well?’” and added, “I don’t particularly care, since I receive police protection.”
As to the possibility of an attack by North Korean special forces, Mr. Im said, “During the Kim Dae-Jung and Roh Moo-Hyun administration, North Korea had no reason to threaten with special forces since it managed the relationship well and got money out of it,” and said, “But now that South Korean government’s stance is hawkish and not rattled by the attacks on Cheonan and Yeonpyeong-do, they have to be preparing.”
Mr. Im pointed underground tunnels as a major route for special forces’ infiltration, and worried that “It will be a significant problem for South Korea’s security.” He said, “There are a lot of tunnels especially around Cheolwon, and they are hard to find because the exits are usually deep in the mountains,” and said, “It takes about 48 hours to come from North Korea to the South, then you would walk or take a bicycle to the point where you can use the public transportation. Then you would head to the city. There is no good way to stop this, so even as we speak there is a significant number of special forces infiltrated into South Korea.”
“I like bars just after they open for the evening. When the air inside is still cool and clean and everything is shiny and the barkeep is giving himself that last look in the mirror to see if his tie is straight and his hair is smooth. I like the neat bottles on the bar back and the lovely shining glasses and the anticipation. I like to watch the man mix the first one of the evening and put it down on a crisp mat and put the little folded napkin beside it. I like to taste it slowly. The first quiet drink of the evening in a quiet bar—that’s wonderful.”—The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
There are few works of greater scope or structural genius than the series of fiction pieces by Horatio Bucklesby Ogden, collectively known as The Wire; yet for the most part, this Victorian masterpiece has been forgotten and ignored by scholars and popular culture alike. Like his contemporary Charles Dickens, Ogden has, due to the rough and at times lurid nature of his material, been dismissed as a hack, despite significant endorsements of literary critics of the nineteenth century. Unlike the corpus of Dickens, The Wire failed to reach the critical mass of readers necessary to sustain interest over time, and thus runs the risk of falling into the obscurity of academia. We come to you today to right that gross literary injustice.
The Wire began syndication in 1846, and was published in 60 installments over the course of six years. Each installment was 30 pages, featuring covers and illustrations by Baxter “Bubz” Black, and selling for one shilling each. After the final installment, The Wire became available in a five volume set, departing from the traditional three.
Bucklesby Ogden himself has most often been compared to Charles Dickens. Both began as journalists, and then branched out with works such as Pickwick Papers and The Corner. While Dickens found popularity and eventual fame in his successive work, Ogden took a darker path.
Dickens’ success for the most part lies in his mastery of the serial format. Other serialized authors were mainly writing episodic sketches linked together only loosely by plot, characters, and a uniformity of style. With Oliver Twist, only his second volume of work, Dickens began to define an altogether new type of novel, one that was more complex, more psychologically and metaphorically contiguous. Despite this, Dickens retained a heightened awareness of his method of publication. Each installment contained a series of elements engineered to give the reader the satisfaction of a complete arc, giving the reader the sense of an episode, complete with a beginning, middle, and end.
One might liken The Wire, however, to the novels of the former century that were single, complete works, and only later were adapted to serial format in order to make them affordable to the public. Yet, while cognizant of his predecessors, Ogden was not working in the paradigm of the eighteenth century. As a Victorian novelist, serialization was the format of choice for his publishers, but rather than providing the short burst of decisively circumscribed fiction so desired by his readership, his tangled narrative unspooled at a stately, at times seemingly glacial, pace. This method of story-telling redefined the novel in an altogether different way than both Victorian novelists and those who had come before.
The serial format did The Wire no favors at the time of its publication. Though critics lauded it, the general public found the initial installments slow and difficult to get into, while later installments required intimate knowledge of all the pieces which had come before. To consume this story in small bits doled out over an extended time is to view a pointillist painting by looking at the dots.
And yet, there is no other form in which The Wire could have been published other than the serial, for both economic and practical reasons. The volume set, at 3£, was an extraordinary expense, as opposed to a shilling per month over six years. Furthermore, while The Wire only truly received praise from scholars, it was produced for the masses, who would be more likely to browse a pamphlet than they would be to purchase a volume set.
Lastly, one might stand back from a pointillist work; whereas physically there is no other way to consume The Wire than piece by piece. To experience the story in its entirety, without breaks between sections, would be exhausting; one would perhaps miss the essence of what makes it great: the slow build of detail, the gradual and yet inevitable churning of this massive beast of a world.
The genius of The Wire lies in its sheer size and scope, its slow layering of complexity which could not have been achieved in any other way but the serial format. Dickens is often praised for his portrayal not merely of a set of characters and their lives, but of the setting as a character: the city itself an antagonist. Yet in The Wire, Bodymore is a far more intricate and compelling character than London in Dickens’ hands; The Wire portrays society to such a degree of realism and intricacy that A Tale of Two Cities—or any other story—can hardly compare.
That is not to say that one did not have an influence on the other. Oliver Twist is a searing treatment of the education system and treatment of children in Victorian society; meanwhile,The Wire’s portrayal of the Bodymore schools is a similar indictment, featuring Oliver-like orphans such as “Dookey” and the fatherless Michael, and criminal activity forced upon children with Fagin-like scheming. Yet while Ogden no doubt took a cue from Dickens in his choice to condemn the educational institution, The Wire builds from the simplicity of Oliver Twist, complicating the subject with a nuance and attention to detail that Dickens never achieved.
In fact, Dickens, in later novels—which incriminate fundamental social institutions such as government (Little Dorrit), the justice system (Bleak House), and social class (A Tale of Two Cities, among others)—seems to have been influenced by The Wire. This is evidenced by the increased complexity of Dickens’ novels, which, instead of following the rollicking adventures of one roguish but endearing protagonist, rather seek to build a complete picture of society. Instead of driving a linear plot forward, Dickens, in A Tale of Two Cities and Bleak House, seeks to unfold the narrative outward, gradually uncovering different aspects of a socially complex world.
While Dickens is lauded for these attempts, The Wire does the same thing, with less appeal to the masses and more skill. For one thing, The Wire’s treatment of the class system is far more nuanced than that of Dickens. Who could forget “Bubbles”—the lovable drifter, Stringer Bell—the bourgeoisie merchant with pretentions to aristocracy, or Bodie—who, despite lack of education or Victorian “good breeding”, is seen reading and enjoying the likes of Jane Austen? Yet these portrayals of the “criminal element” always maintain a certain realism. We never descend into the divisions of “loveable rogues” and truly evil villains of which Dickens makes such effective use. Odgen’s Bodie, an adult who uses children to perpetrate criminal activity, is not a caricature of an ethnic minority in the mode of Dickens’ Fagin the Jew.
In fact, none of The Wire’s villains have the unadulterated slimy repulsion of David Copperfield’s Uriah Heep, except for perhaps the journalist, Scott Templeton. The final installments of The Wire were sometimes criticized for devolving into Dickensian caricature in regards to the plots surrounding Templeton and The Bodymore Sun. (It is interesting to note first that Dickensian characterizations were Templeton’s number one crime, and second, that these critics of The Wire were for the most part journalists themselves.)
If at any time besides its treatment of Templeton The Wire flirts with caricature, it does so in the character of Omar Little. Yet no one would ever reduce such a monumental culmination of literary tradition, satire, and basic human desire for mythos as Omar Little by defining him as mere caricature. Little is not Dickensian. Nor is he a character in the style of Thackeray, Eliot, Trollope, or any of the most famous serialists. If he must be compared to characters in the Victorian times, he most closely resembles a creation of a Brontë; he could have come from Wuthering Heights.
The reason that Little so closely resembles a Brontë hero is of course that the estimable sisters were often not writing in the Victorian paradigm at all, but rather in the Gothic. Their heroes were Byronic, and Lord Byron himself took his cue from the ancient tradition of Romance, culminating in Spenser’s Faerie Queene, but originating even further back. Little would not be out of place in Faerie Queene, and even less so in Don Quixote: an errant knight wielding a sword, facing dragons, no man his master. The character builds on the tradition of the quintessential Robin Hood and borrows qualities from many of the great chivalric romances of previous centuries. Meanwhile there is an element of the fay, mirroring Robin Hood’s own predecessor—Goodfellow or Puck—and prefiguring later dashing, mysterious heroes who also play the part of the fop, as in The Scarlet Pimpernel.
As previously mentioned, Little also has the flavor of the Gothic: brooding, hell-bent on revenge. Indeed, there is a darkness to the character that would not suit Sir Gawain, but does not seem out of place in a Don Juan or Brontë’s Heathcliffe. Little is in fact an amalgamation of these traditions, an essential archetype.
Yet, despite all this, Little can still not be called caricature. There is an awareness of literary canon in Omar Little, a certain level of dramatic irony. The street children and rabble, so Dickensian in their miscellany, always announce his presence, and even as The Wire grows and expands, so does the legend of Little. The Wire is aware of the mythic quality of its character, and allows the rest of the cast to observe it, indirectly commenting on the literary traditions from which Omar Little sprang. Only in the Victorian Age could Romanticism, Gothicism, and poignant satire come to a head in such a trenchant examination of the way such archetype endures. It is lamentable that our culture today, sorely devoid of new mythos, could not produce a character of such quality and social commentary.
Many characters of the age pale in comparison to The Wire, but if any other deserves explicit exploration, it is James “Jimmy” McNulty. While McNulty is rich in his own right, he is particularly interesting in comparison to the viewpoint characters of Dickens. As Dickens progressed from his “picaresque” adventure-style novels to his more serious explorations of society, so too did his central protagonist evolve. And yet, instead of gaining in complexity, Dickens’ viewpoint characters dwindled—in personality, idiosyncrasy, any unique or identifying traits.
Scholars believe the passivity of Dickens’ heroes was a direct result of his shift in style and subject matter: in order to portray the many aspects of society Dickens wished to explore, in order to maintain a strong supporting cast of highly individualized characters, he believed the main character must be de-individualized. He must become a receptacle of the injustices perpetrated by society, so that the failure of social institution can be witnessed and explored as the reader identifies with the protagonist’s essential powerlessness. This is an elegant method, used to near-perfection in David Copperfield, in which the only uninteresting character is David Copperfield himself.
The Wire charted another course. McNulty is a challenging character; in the beginning, he is not easy to like. Though he is our protagonist and usually our viewpoint character on our journey through The Wire, he begins and ends on a note that is extremely morally questionable, despite a redemptive arc mid-series. We are unable to approve of his actions, unable to assimilate his qualities as our own. Yet McNulty is powerless exactly in the way of David Copperfield. He is used and exploited by corrupt social systems, institutions, or figures of power in exactly the way of David Copperfield or Pip from Great Expectations. He is helpless to incite real and lasting change, his passivity forced upon him as he constantly struggles against it, rather than rising from an internal lack of agency. It is this very struggle which endears McNulty to us, in the end.
In fact, the number one way in which The Wire differs from any other Victorian novel is its bleak moral outlook. Dickens’ works almost always had a handful of characters that were essentially likeable. In the end, the power of love and truth is borne out and the individual triumphs over the ugliness of society by maintaining his integrity. Trollope, Eliot, Gaskell, etc all wrote with this essentially Western—not to mention imperialist—mind-set. Only William Makepeace Thackeray, in Vanity Fair—subtitled, A Novel Without A Hero—presents an unrelentingly bleak assessment of society. The ending is unhappy, all of the characters flawed to varying degrees. It is significant that critics of the time chastised Thackeray for refusing to throw his audience crumbs of moral fiber.
In our age, we can never experience a modern equivalent of The Wire. We would be unwilling to portray the lower classes and criminal element with the patience or consideration of Horatio Bucksley Ogden or of Baxter “Bubz” Black. We would be unwilling to give a work like The Wire the kind of time and attention it deserves, which is why it has faded away, instead of being held up as the literary triumph it truly is. If popular culture does not open its eyes, works like The Wire will only continue their slow slide into obscurity.