At 16 years old, I googled, "When is the best age to get married?" I was in love with my high school sweetheart and thought there was no way I could wait until the old age of 25 to get hitched (LOL). And while that relationship ended long ago, the question still lingers for many — even for celebrities.
On 11 April, Millie Bobby Brown posted a photo on Instagram with her partner, Jake Bongiovi, while sporting a diamond ring on her left hand. And while it hasn't been confirmed-confirmed by the lovebirds, the internet has assumed that this was an engagement announcement, both because of the ring on her finger and the Taylor Swift lyrics in the caption: "I've loved you three summers now, honey, I want 'em all," from the song "Lover."
It's always a little shocking to witness a child star grow up in front of our eyes. But in the case of the "Stranger Things" actor, many can't get over her age. "She's 19" trended on Twitter as fans flocked to the social media town square to express concern that she's "too young" to make the life-changing decision of marriage at her age.
But is this true? Yes, 19 is young; the Olympic Britain Book puts the average age of marriage in the UK at 31, after all. But is it so young that any person of that age is incapable of making an informed decision on their life and future?
Pop science would say yes. There's been a longtime theory that the frontal lobe — specifically the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision-making, planning, and impulse control — doesn't finish developing until age 25. Therefore, people under age 25 can't fully be trusted to make big decisions for themselves — like, say, who to marry.
But according to neuroscience expert Patrick Porter, PhD, founder and CEO of BrainTap, the development of the brain doesn't have an end date. Meaning, while it's true that the prefrontal cortex takes longer to develop, the age 25 is not a hard number — it's actually more of a range.
"Brain maturity is a complex and ongoing process that involves changes in the brain's structure, function, and connectivity over the course of our lives," Dr. Porter says. "There is no single metric or milestone that definitively determines brain maturity, as it can vary between individuals and depends on a range of factors, such as genetics, environment, and life experiences."
Personally, at 27, I can't say if I'm better at impulse control because of a more developed prefrontal cortex or if I'm just tired earlier in the evening and can't get into as much trouble as I used to.
POPSUGAR spoke with Dr. Porter to filter out the fact from the fiction in an effort to better understand how — and if — brain development influences our ability to make big life decisions like saying yes to marriage, acting on major career moves, or going in on buying a house.
Does the Brain Fully Develop When You Turn 25?
While it is true that certain parts of the brain may not fully mature until around age 25, such as the prefrontal cortex, Dr. Porter confirms that the brain continues to develop and change throughout our lives. And the timeline for brain development isn't the same for everyone. "Some individuals may experience full maturation of their prefrontal cortex earlier or later than the age of 25," Dr. Porter says.
However, researchers have also identified certain patterns of brain development that are generally associated with increasing maturity. "For instance, the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive functions such as decision-making and impulse control, tends to show continued development into early adulthood, with changes in its structure and connectivity," he adds.
Overall, while there are certain patterns of brain development associated with increasing maturity, it's important to recognise that brain development depends on a range of factors. Therefore, any metric or milestone — like age 25 — should be viewed as a general guideline rather than a definitive indicator of brain maturity.
How Does Prefrontal Cortex Development Impact Decision-Making?
The prefrontal cortex continues to develop and mature throughout adolescence and into early adulthood. But this doesn't mean that young adults are unable to make responsible decisions or exhibit self-control. "Rather, it suggests that there may be differences in the way that younger and older individuals approach decision-making and self-regulation, and that these differences should be taken into account when making important life choices," Dr. Porter says.
For example, one study looked at how younger and older adults performed decision-making tasks. Older adults were better suited for making decisions based on their past experience like how to spend their life savings, which makes sense since the options available to us usually depend on the choices we have made previously. Younger adults had better decision-making skills when their choice was independent of previous experience like which career path to take or what college to attend.
But again, it comes down to the individual. "Some younger adults may have already developed a strong sense of decision-making and self-regulation, while others may need more time to fully mature in these areas," he adds. The key is to take steps to promote responsible decision-making and self-regulation, regardless of age. Steps to reduce impulsive behaviour can include seeking out advice and guidance from trusted sources, taking time to reflect on potential outcomes before making a decision, or practicing self-control techniques such as mindfulness meditation.
Is There a "Safe" Age to Make Big Decisions?
Because the prefrontal cortex continues to full develop through age 25, Dr. Porter says it could mean that younger adults may be more impulsive in their dating decisions or may not fully consider the long-term implications of a marriage. Similarly, this can play out with career choices like being more willing to quit on the fly without proper planning.
However, brain development is just one piece of the puzzle. Social and cultural factors, life experiences, personal values, and individual circumstances can also influence major life decisions. "There is no one-size-fits-all answer," he explains. "Each individual matures at their own pace, and personal circumstances vary." For instance, a young adult who has a stable job and has been living independently for several years may be better equipped to make big decisions than an older adult who is still struggling with financial or personal issues.
Ultimately, it's important to consider all the relevant factors before making big decisions, regardless of age. "The key is to be mindful, reflective, and responsible in decision-making, whether in dating, marriage, or any other aspect of life," he adds.
While we may never know why getting married young works for some people and ends in divorce for others, we do know that decision-making is more complex than most assume. And a person's maturity level isn't entirely dependent on physical brain development, despite what pop science would have us believe. Each brain goes through its journey at its own pace, and is impacted by nature and nurture as well. So considering all that, the only thing left to say is: best of luck to Millie!