Neoteny refers to when a species’ traits that are typically associated with juvenile stages of development are carried into adulthood. A common example is the Mexican salamander, or axolotl. At full maturity, the axolotl continues to look like a tadpole, which supposedly is more adaptive to its environmental niche than the adult salamander body. As the axolotl demonstrates, sometimes immaturity gleans the greatest advantages.
Neoteny may have played a role in human development. Biologist Stephen J. Gould believed neoteny contributed to the evolution of humans from our hominid ancestors, who at full maturity were harrier and thicker boned than us modern Homo sapiens. What was lost in terms of physical resilience was supposedly compensated by our analytical minds and ingenuity.
Some argue neoteny continues in present day humans; however, it is our psychology and not our physiology that increasingly remains immature. And if key indicators of psychological age include how people spend their time as well as the content of their fantasies, then psychological immaturity is at risk of becoming so pronounced that our era may best be described as the Age of Psychological Neoteny.
Mere science fiction, you might say, or just another hypothetical dystopia? Perhaps. The novelist Michael Crichton, in his techno-thriller Next (Harper Fiction), included a fictional news brief with an evolutionary psychiatrist discussing psychological neoteny that is barely discernible from reality:
“According to Dr. Bruce Charlton, evolutionary psychiatrist at Newcastle upon Tyne, human beings now take longer to reach mental maturity—and many never do so at all….
“He notes that ‘academics, teachers, scientists and many other professionals are often strikingly immature.’ He calls them ‘unpredictable, unbalanced in priorities, and tending to overreact’….
“Charlton thinks this may be adaptive. ‘A child-like flexibility of attitudes, behaviors and knowledge’ may be useful in navigating the increased instability of the modern world, he says, where people are more likely to change jobs, learn new skills, move to new places. But this comes at the cost of ‘short attention span, frenetic novelty-seeking, ever shorter cycles of arbitrary fashion, and … a pervasive emotional and spiritual shallowness.’ He added that modern people ‘lack a profundity of character which seemed commoner in the past’.”
In a more recent and nonfictional commentary on the emotional state of the American male, The Demise of Guys: Why Boys are Struggling and What We Can Do About It, Philip Zimbardo and Nikita Duncan wrote:
“The excessive use of video games and online porn in pursuit of the next thing is creating a generation of risk-averse guys who are unable (and unwilling) to navigate the complexities and risks inherent to real-life relationships, school, and employment.”
Ouch. It seems in the Age of Psychological Neoteny men are the only juvenile adults. Yet psychological neoteny, if it is occurring, certainly impacts both sexes.
How is some men’s predilection for online escapism psychologically different from some women’s obsessive pursuit of the beauty and fashion standards found in magazines, movies, and online media? When women seek Botox, collagen injections, and other youth-enhancing procedures to look like teen models or the latest film siren, are they not also resisting growing up, if not old? Perhaps female neoteny is less interesting. It’s socially acceptable for women to pursue eternal youth, especially if it means we are more seductive and financially dependent as a result of our efforts.
Psychological immaturity does seem rampant these days, and Crichton’s description of neoteny as causing ‘a pervasive emotional and spiritual shallowness’ seems all too real. But is psychological neoteny in the twenty-first century limited to only wayward men who have moved back home and whittle away time by playing video games and watching porn? I don’t think so. Rather, I imagine these men’s actions exist on a continuum with many other strategies for dealing with the psychological overwhelm that is a common response to what journalist Thomas Friedman called “Globalization 3.0.” Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the expansion of the Internet across the globe, we have had to rapidly adapt to being aware of the lives of many people we will never have contact with, nevertheless we know intimate details from their lives. We can even be more influenced by these virtual-world strangers than the real people we experience around us. Certainly, we are sometimes inspired by our exposure to other peoples’ lives via the Internet, as well as a marketplace that promises unlimited possibility. Yet there are two formidable problems with this new world economy:
- we have all become exceedingly familiar with the luxurious lifestyles and vast opportunities available to the rich and famous; and,
- there exists a profoundly unequal distribution of wealth in which only a limited few actually attain lives of luxury, if even a middle class way of life.
Granted, throughout the history of civilization there have been extreme differences in wealth. What perhaps makes the current situation different from the past is how our fantasies and imaginations are being exploited, and in ways that actually assure that inequality continues, if not increases.
Rather than challenging a fundamentally unequal system, more often efforts are spent imagining how to experience the spoils of wealth, including the sense of power that wealth brings. Although there are rumblings about the death of the American Dream, the current round of globalization succeeds because people can easily use the Internet and other forms of media as fodder for fantasizing about being the exception to the rule. However, when we fill ourselves with fantasies of a perfect self and ideal life, we risk becoming what Francis Moore Lappé called “selfish little accumulators,” chiseling away at Earth’s precious resources as well as our own limited financial capital and time.
But many cannot afford to shop for the coveted self-image or lifestyle, which often is really about acquiring emotional states, such as a sense of superiority, or the avoidance of painful emotions such as envy. Superiority and envy are two emotions commonly stirred by hierarchical societies, along with feelings of shame for not attaining greater status. And I think that when a person is plagued by these emotions, and pursues fantasies of perfection, it’s a sign of emotional dependency on the capitalistic system.
When I think of young men, in the prime of their lives, getting lost in imaginal worlds, I wonder if they feel they have no chance at the American Dream, that they are exhausted by the quest to create a real-world identity, and have discovered they can get just as much satisfaction out of their imaginal escapes — at least until reality comes breaking through.
The choice of fantasy over reality is actually a relatively common defense against chronically traumatizing conditions. And much research has shown that chronic stress results from exposure to extreme disparities of wealth. (See The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity) Less research, however, has shown why we not only tolerate economic systems that propagate disparities in wealth and power, but also become dependent on such disparities to fuel fantasy worlds that rarely come to fruition, and often cause longing, dissatisfaction, and hopelessness.
These emotional responses are also common to children of neglectful or abusive parents. Ironically, while many exposed to neglect or abuse can grow up too quickly, becoming proficient at taking care of themselves and others, there are often unresolved emotional dependency needs. Later relationships, rather than based on interrelatedness and mutual dependency, can be characterized by attempts to seek fulfillment of these unmet emotional needs that stem from the earliest years of life.
Globalization’s requires our psychological immaturity
While many factors contribute to the expansion of a globalized marketplace, I am most interested in how globalization stunts emotional growth, creating conditions of emotional dependency that have us wasting so much time in fantasy worlds driven more by products and experiences we can buy than by authentic desires and needs.
If we look at the inception of globalization, going back to colonization and the enslavement of people of color, not only were they often physically beaten into submission, their polytheistic beliefs systems were also attacked, along with the myths and rituals that contributed to social cohesion and guided growth over the lifespan. Without their spiritual beliefs, they were more susceptible to psychological and spiritual dependency on the colonizers.
It was common practice for colonizers to assert that polytheistic, nature-based belief systems were evidence of the “natives” psychological immaturity, and a reason to convert them to monotheistic belief systems such as Catholicism. Yet in the process of conversion, “natives” not only learned about Christianity. They also learned spiritual beliefs and practices were considered separate and distinct from the rules and conditions guiding the marketplace. Separation of church and state, although intended to provide greater spiritual freedom, also allows for the splitting of spirituality from the materialistic conditions that contribute to our survival. Thus, the marketplace can become as ruthless as is necessary to attain its goals, while organized religions can pursue their spiritual commitments to peoples’ souls without seriously challenging the immoral conditions of the globalized marketplace, which has included slavery since its inception.
Yet spirituality is heavily influenced by the imaginal aspects of psyche, if not synonymous with them. Thus, with the division between the marketplace and spiritual life, we also witness the inception of using the imaginal as an escape from the conditions of our secular lives. This replaces belief systems that acknowledge the interdependency of the spiritual and natural (or physical) realm, which at least in some cultures supports healthy interrelatedness and environmental sustainability rather than globalization’s exploitation of resources and need for dependency from its members.
In America, which in part was founded on the opportunity for religious freedom and the separation of church and state, emotional immaturity was witnessed early in its history. In his visit to America in 1831, the French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville made note of the emotional immaturity plaguing Americans. He wrote in Democracy in America:
“Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. The power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood…. For their happiness such a government willingly labors… provides for their security… facilitates their pleasures, manages their principle concerns… what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?”
Of course, it is natural to seek security from our social groups. On a basic level, the advantage of any social group is defense against threat. Indeed, banding in protective groups was likely the basis for our species’ evolutionary success. As far back as five million years ago, monkeys out-competed our hominid ancestors who largely led solitary existences. The monkeys took over the jungle canopies, and the hominids were forced to forage on the open savannas where they were easy prey. Those able to communicate and work together survived, passing on both their genes and their propensity for group living. And at least since the late Pleistocene, myths and rituals seem to have been the stock methods for symbolically relaying to youth the spiritual path to maturity and transcendence of childish selfish needs, thus ensuring the survival of the group.
But today our dominant fears are not of being devoured by a predator. Rather, we more often fear the psychological pain of alienation or abandonment. The Hungarian psychoanalyst Géza Róheim wrote:
“[Civilization] is a huge network of more or less successful attempts to protect mankind against the danger of object-loss, the colossal efforts made by a baby who is afraid of being left alone in the dark” (Quoted in Campbell, 2002/1951).
I believe that without myths and rituals and a supportive community to guide the passage to adulthood, fearing object loss can cause longing for safety as well as anxiety for the unknown. In the face of unrelenting anxiety, paralysis and escape into fantasy are common defenses. There is also the risk of difficulty with distinguishing between fantasy, dream, and reality that is also characteristic of psychological immaturity.
The Central Role Myth and Ritual Play In Human Development
In psychology, the pursuit of eternal youth is typically considered a neurotic defense stemming from maladaptive conditions in the family. In pop psychology it’s called the Peter Pan complex, which describes men who are resistant to growing up and taking on responsibilities that are typically associated with being an adult male. Peter Pans perceive adulthood as drudgery, if not death of the soul.
Jungian psychologists use the Latin terms Puer Aeternus, the eternal boy, and Puella Aeterna, the eternal girl, to describe the pursuit of eternal youth. However, Jungian psychology sees both positive and negative aspects of the Puer/Puella. And while one aspect of the Puer/Puella is the refusal to grow up, more positive qualities include novelty and an infectious hopefulness that is necessary for optimal change and growth.
As an archetypal force rather than just a neurotic defense, we can see the Puer and Puella as part of all of us. We all are capable of regressing to our childish selves (and some of us use the weekends as a form of structured indulgence). And when circumstances support or encourage regression, people who easily activate their internal Puers and Puellas are often perceived as innovative, life-affirming, and fun to be around. They are the creative geniuses and thought leaders who dauntlessly take us into uncharted territory.
Western models of human development, which focus on the attainment of a unitary sense of self as the hallmark of maturity, tend to depict childhood as something we outgrow. Yet from studying Jungian psychology I have come to think of development more as expanding possibilities, including having multiple aspects of the self to inhabit in response to different social and environmental demands. We don’t necessarily get rid of our child selves; rather, other archetypal possibilities (e.g., hero/heroine, partner, parent, elder, healer, etc.) develop as we inhabit different situations and roles across the lifespan.
Some believe specific social conditions and environments are necessary for activating the different archetypal aspects of the Self. Jungian analyst Anthony Stevens describes this process as fulfilling archetypal intent. When a society or environment fails to provide the conditions that would activate archetypes, the result can be emotional and psychological immaturity, if not neurosis. In his book, The Two-Million-Year-Old Self, Stevens wrote:
“Mental health depends upon the provision of physical and social environments capable of meeting the archetypal needs of the developing individual. Psychopathology can result when these needs are frustrated. This formulation gives rise to two fundamental questions: (1) What are the archetypal needs of the developing individual? (2) What environments, physical and social, are capable of guaranteeing their fulfillment?”
Throughout human history, myths and rituals have been carriers of the wisdom and experiences necessary for activating archetypal intent, thus fostering full maturity and integration of the Self. Through myths and rituals, humans learn not only which role they are expected to play in their social group and when they are expected to play that role, they are also supported through the inevitable grief that comes with letting go of one way of life, along with the anxiety common to entering a new stage of life or role.
This is not to say that myths and rituals are the path to utopia. Please! That would just be Puella thinking! Rather, I’m pointing out that when we meet head on the challenges life presents us, and with support that helps contain potentially overwhelming emotions, we tend to fair a lot better, and with a lot less neurosis and mental illness.
Perhaps living in fantasy worlds such as those created by video games, online porn, and fashion are misguided efforts at directing archetypal energies towards development. Maybe the pursuit of fantasy is a psychological defense that emerges during periods of uncertainty and scarcity such as ours — a kind of psychological hyperbaric chamber that preserves psychological energies until the conditions necessary for fulfilling archetypal intent are present.
In many regards, the current interdependent global economy is in constant flux due to its acute sensitivity to massive Diasporas, civil unrest, global warming, dwindling resources, and environmental degradation. Yet despite these currents of change, there is also rigidity, largely due to the unequal distribution of resources. Many people today feel impotent in the face of the financial disparities that threaten their ideals and their attempts to create a life worth living, which for many includes having a family, a home, meaningful work, and a supportive community. Hence the constant rumblings about the end of the American Dream.
When an absurdly small percentage of the world’s population holds the majority of the world’s wealth, and hence power, it’s very difficult for youths to gain economic independence. And in the modern world, economic independence has become evidence of adulthood and transcending psychological childishness. The marketplace has its own markers for the attainment of adulthood — a degree, a job, a title, material wealth, status — yet rarely are they enough to activate the felt sense of transcendence of youth that across the ages contributed to both spiritual growth and social cohesion. Furthermore, the imaginal aspects of the psyche enlivened by myth and ritual are exploited by the marketplace, which needs consumers to redirect their imaginal energies towards the pursuit of success promoted through media rather than gratifying relationships and spiritual enlightenment. And the latter likely require ignoring, if not rejecting, the push to purchase the identities and lifestyles that continually bombard us through media.
When so few young people can ever hope of living the mythical lives of our society’s heroes — e.g., the movie stars, athletes, and billionaires — but nevertheless can at a lesser cost, and with limited effort, through the Internet (and a credit card) manipulate themselves and their imaginations so that, for at least some of the time, they feel ‘as if’ they have transcended their current selves, is it any surprise that many escape in video games and the pursuit of beauty? And the corporations who financially benefit from these emotional ‘fixes’ are more than happy to comply.
Campbell, Joseph. 2002/1951. Flight of the Wild Gander: Explorations in the Mythological Dimension: New World Library.
Crichton, Michael. 2008. Next. New York: Harper.
de Tcqueville, Alex. 2003. Democracy in America (Penguin Classic). New York: Penguin Classics.
Friedman, Thomas L. 2005. The World is Flat: A Brief History of The Twenty-First Century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Marmot, Michael. 2004. The Status Syndrome. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
Stevens, Anthony. 1993. The Two Million-Year-Old Self. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press.
Zimbardo, Philip and Nikita Duncan. 2012. The Demise of Guys: Why Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It. Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
© 2014 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).