science of us

Teenagers Do Too Know What Real Love Is

Photo: Carl Iwasaki/Getty Images/The LIFE Picture Co

Perhaps you were already under the assumption that the deepest love you’ve ever felt was the love you felt in high school: be it for your first boyfriend or girlfriend, or for someone in *NSYNC. It is true that teenagers feel their feelings with deranged intensity, which is the only explanation for the time I gave a crush my phone number by creating a secret program in his TI-83 graphing calculator. Never again (hopefully) will you feel that you will die if you don’t spend every waking second talking to or at least looking at the object of your desire.

Still, a recent Reddit r/relationships thread presented the world’s lovelorn teens with a challenge: If the human brain doesn’t finish developing until one’s mid-20s, is it really possible for anyone younger to truly comprehend the meaning of love?

The question was posed by a 23-year-old woman whose 23-year-old boyfriend of more than a year (“Andy”) told her it’s “too soon” to know if he loves her because of their undeveloped brains. I agree that his brain is underdeveloped, but the commenters were polarized. User princessmorbux took the boyfriend’s side, writing: “I’m not going to lie, my concept of love was completely different at 23 than 29. He’s not entirely wrong.” User ConsistentCheesecake, however, was not having it: “Wow your boyfriend sounds like a pretentious, insufferable person. Over a year and he can’t say he loves you? DEAL BREAKER. Plus his argument is insanely stupid anyway.”

So who’s right? According to Dean Burnett, a neuroscientist and author of the international best sellers Idiot Brain and Happy Brain, it’s the girlfriend, along with princessmorbux et al. (Duh.) Burnett points out that while it’s true that the brain continues to develop well into our 20s, that doesn’t mean it can’t do anything properly before that point: “When we hit our teens, our brains are still developing, but they’re not necessarily acquiring new abilities or information. Instead, they’re sorting out what they’ve already accumulated, and making things more efficient,” he writes. By one’s late teens (and certainly by the age of 23, ANDY), the brain is maturing and learning to make important connections.

Furthermore, what needs the most development in one’s teens and 20s aren’t the basic, instinctive processes like fear, affection, and love, but more complex, prefrontal-cortex-based functions. What makes our teen years (and early 20s) so emotionally overwhelming, says Burnett, is actually the fact that we can feel all those superintense feelings, but don’t yet have all the rational thought processes in place to control them.

This may seem like bad news for the original poster, but it only feels that way now. In an update to her post, she informed the Reddit community that she and Andy broke up mere days later, during a discussion in which he had the unbelievable nerve to pull the “I love you, but I’m not in love with you” card. Good riddance!!

Teenagers Do Too Know What Real Love Is