The social brain of a teenager

“In what ways does social cognition change during adolescence?”

Do you remember what it felt like to be a teenager? I do. Or at least, I remember some things. I remember how, amid all the unnerving bodily changes going on (thanks, acne), there was a lot of change in my friendship groups, too. Instead of simply being ‘friends’ or ‘not friends’, all these complicated dynamics started forming. Suddenly my childhood shyness turned into acute self-consciousness. So when, during my Master’s, our lecture on psychological development in adolescence came up, I was pretty intrigued. And the lecture didn’t disappoint. It turns out that part of the reason that being a teenager felt so intensely weird is because, contrary to what people used to believe, the brain of a teenager is very much still developing. And in particular, a network known as ‘the social brain’.

As I read around the essay question, I learnt a lot about how cognition changes during adolescence. It really put some of my own experiences into context. For example, I remember feeling perpetually misunderstood by my parents and teachers. I found it frustrating that they couldn’t remember how hard it was being a teenager. After my research, I now understand that this feeling of being misunderstood is one of a few so-called ‘cognitive distortions’ often experienced during adolescence. And, jokes aside, my research highlighted to me how hard it really is being a teenager. So much of your internal and external world is changing, and, as I discovered, the way that you perceive and think about yourself and others is changing too. And I was fortunate enough to experience all that before the age of smartphones and social media. Today’s teenagers have got it hard.


Essay Summary

(If you fancy jumping straight into the real thing instead, just keep scrolling…)

  • Traditionally, we used to believe that teenagers were pretty much adults without the life experience. That is, we thought their brain was fully developed and it was just a matter of learning that made them less, well, teenager-y. Turns out that we got that wrong, and actually, the teenage brain is still developing QUITE A LOT. Woops.
  • Social cognition is the way we think about ourselves and other people. And it’s a key aspect of psychological functioning that’s still developing in teenagers.
  • A part of the brain called ‘the social brain‘ changes structure during adolescence. If the words ‘temporoparietal junction’ make you feel a bittenor (4).gifthen do not fear! They scared me too. This is just one of a few key brain regions that seem to be frequently used for social interactions, and so are known as ‘the social brain’. And evidence suggests that these brain regions are still changing at a structural level during adolescence. But, as you’ll see in the essay, exactly what this means is a little unclear. And some people have some pretty punchy things to say about it (Poldrack, I’m looking at you).
  • Teenagers improve at certain social cognitive abilities during adolescence. One key example is that of ‘mentalising’ – the ability to perceive and interpret the mental states of others, including their thoughts, feeling and motivations. Children can do this at a basic level, but it develops a lot during adolescence. This seems to be related to improvements in other social cognitive skills like taking into account other people’s perspectives, social decision making, and processing social emotions such as shame or guilt.
  • Teenagers seem to use areas of the social brain differently than adults, which is thought to reflect them either being less efficient, or using different mental strategies. You’ll find a few interesting examples in the essay!
  • All this change, whilst being great in the end, can cause problems along the way, including the ‘cognitive distortions’ I mentioned earlier. These slightly warped ways of thinking can make being a teenager pretty difficult.
  • This area of research is fairly new, and there are ways that the field could improve so that we can learn even more. This is particularly important as a significant number of mental health issues tend to first appear during adolescence. Perhaps understanding what’s going on in the brain during those years will help us understand why this happens and how to help.

This was my first ever psychology essay, and first Master’s-level essay, after several years out of University. When I started, I didn’t actually know what ‘social cognition’ meant! I had to work really hard to understand all the new concepts. In the end, it got a first class mark, so I was pretty bloomin’ chuffed! But if the essay summary has sated you and you don’t fancy reading the real thing below, I won’t be offended. Before you go, you might be interested in these:

  • A TED talk by Sarah-Jayne Blakemore (who is referenced a lot in this essay, because she’s a genius) on ‘the mysterious workings of the adolescent brain‘. Only 14mins and definitely worth a watch for some insight into what on earth is going on in there.
  • A short article by The Guardian, with some ‘secrets of the teenage brain’ that you may find interesting. Designed to help teachers, but could help us all be a little more understanding towards adolescents.

If you’re up for the real thing, read on…


In what ways does social cognition change during adolescence?

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“Adolescence is a period of human development characterised by change.”

Introduction

Adolescence is a period of human development characterised by change. The start of this period is generally defined as the onset of puberty, at around 9-10 years in girls and 10-12 years in boys, with geographical and historical variation (Keizer‐Schrama & Mul, 2001). The end of adolescence is less clearly defined as the point of achieving self-sufficiency from caregivers, which is more culturally determined (Arnett, 2004), but often considered as the end of the teenaged years.

Precise social cognition definitions vary. Broadly, it concerns the processes involved in how we perceive and understand ourselves and others, often in order to regulate our own behaviour. This broad definition implicates a wide range of systems that are non-social-specific (Frith & Blakemore, 2006). This essay will focus on changes in adolescent cognition that are seemingly specific to social interaction. It will discuss key changes in social cognition during adolescence, and promising future directions of this field.

Social cognition research in context

As adolescents attempt to establish self-sufficiency, they must reorient their social networks, and establish more complex peer relationships that often include hierarchical, romantic and sexual elements (Brown, 2004). To succeed in this, they must acquire more advanced social cognitive skills than those developed during childhood.

Until relatively recently, there was little research on social cognitive development in adolescence. It was widely believed that the underlying neural systems were fully developed by mid-childhood. In recent years, advances in brain imaging have enabled a very different view – that of adolescence as a significant period of development for social cognition, and for an area of the brain known as the social brain network.

Structural changes in the social brain during adolescence

The term social brain refers to an extensive network of regions that are consistently activated during social cognitive tasks. Initially proposed by Brothers (1990), neuroimaging studies have validated its existence, and identified additional regions thought to be involved. Key regions include the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS), temporoparietal junction (TPJ), anterior temporal cortex (ATC), and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC) (Frith, 2007), shown below.

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Key areas of the social brain network.
Orange: temporoparietal junction (TPJ)
Pink: posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS)
Blue: anterior temporal cortex (ATC)
Green: dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC)
From Mills et al., 2012.

Structural MRI studies reveal substantial and prolonged neuroanatomical changes in the social brain during adolescence. Grey matter (GM) volume increases in the social brain between childhood and adolescence, then decreases into adulthood, stabilising in the early twenties (Mills, Lalonde, Clasen, Giedd, & Blakemore, 2012).

Two theories surround this non-linear pattern of GM volume. First, that it reflects synaptic proliferation followed by synaptic pruning (Paus, Keshavan, & Giedd, 2008), which could optimise social cognition with accumulated experience during adolescence (Chechik, Meilijson, & Ruppin, 1999). Whilst synaptic pruning is only inferred from GM volume changes, post-mortem studies support developmental synaptic pruning in mPFC (Petanjek et al., 2011), and evidence exists for the role of impaired synaptic pruning in social behavioural problems (Kim et al., 2016).

A second theory is that decreases in GM volume during adolescence reflect increased white matter integrity, which may increase efficiency in the social brain, and has been suggested to have a possible direct role in learning complex cognitive skills (Carreiras et al., 2009; Fields, 2010).

At present, however, there is a lack of concrete evidence of how the structural MRI measures relate to anatomy at the synapse level (Blakemore & Mills, 2014), and relatively few studies demonstrate direct associations between structural observations and performance. Therefore, whilst plausible, it is difficult to conclusively accept these hypotheses. The very concept of ‘efficiency’ has been suggested to merely re-describe the activation patterns observed in the functional studies to which we now turn (Poldrack, 2015).

Adolescent development in mentalising

Behavioural and functional studies provide evidence for development of specific social cognitive abilities during adolescence, with underlying functional changes suggested to reflect increasing efficiency or changes in cognitive strategy. One such cognitive ability is that of mentalising.

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As adolescents reorient their social networks, and establish more complex peer relationships, they need to develop more advanced social cognitive skills. Mentalising is one core skill which continues to develop during adolescence. It’s the ability to perceive and interpret the mental states of others. This is crucial for succeeding in more complex social interactions.

Mentalising is the ability to perceive and interpret the mental states of others, including their thoughts, feeling and motivations (Fletcher et al., 1995). Whilst basic ability develops in early childhood, perhaps as early as infancy (Baillargeon et al., 2010), several studies show continued development during adolescence, with performance improving across a variety of tasks (e.g. Dumontheil, Apperly & Blakemore, 2010). fMRI studies show patterns of differential activation in areas of the social brain network between children, adolescents and adults. mPFC activation is consistently shown to decrease with age over adolescence (Blakemore, 2008), which longitudinal studies confirm (Overgaauw, van Duijvenvoorde, Gunther Moor, & Crone, 2015). This is thought to indicate increasing efficiency, where more mature neural systems of the mPFC require less energy to perform these tasks, or alternatively changing cognitive strategies (Blakemore, 2008). For example, as individuals gain experience of social interactions, mentalising may become more automated and require less ‘online’ processing.

Studies have also shown increasing activation of the ATC (Burnett, Bird, Moll, Frith & Blakemore, 2009), a region implicated in application of social knowledge (Olson, Plotzker, & Ezzyat, 2007; Frith, 2007), between adolescents and adults. This may suggest a greater propensity of adults to use acquired social knowledge in mentalising. Interestingly, adolescents appear to recruit brain regions involved in mentalising even for non-social tasks, where adults do not (Dumontheil, Hillebrandt, Apperly, & Blakemore, 2012), which could suggest increasing specialisation with age.

The proposals of efficiency and changing cognitive strategy are not mutually exclusive, and could be further tested with studies which directly investigate the links between performance improvements and functional and structural changes.

Perspective-taking, social decision-making and social emotion processing

Other social cognitive skills require mentalising ability, and these also show continued development during adolescence. In particular perspective-taking, the ability to take another person’s perspective into account, improves during adolescence, as shown in the ‘Director Task’, which requires participants to consider the perspective of another person to make decisions. The improvement in performance through adolescence into adulthood is suggested to be due to increasing motivation to consider others’ perspectives, as well as improved integration between social cognitive and cognitive control systems (Dumontheil et al, 2010).

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An example of a perspective-taking task. The participant needs to be able to take into account the perspective of the ‘director’ giving the instructions (b), which differs from their own perspective (a), in order to perform the task correctly. In picture (c), the participant will move the tennis ball ‘target’ instead of the golf ball ‘distractor’ if they successfully take into account the perspective of the director (who cannot see the golf ball). From Dumontheil et al, 2010.

Fett et al. (2014) have proposed that the increased tendency towards perspective-taking is associated with changes in trust and reciprocity, and that it is this, rather than a general shift towards pro-social behaviour, that explains the observed increase in other-oriented rather than self-oriented social decisions during adolescence (e.g. van den Bos, van Dijk, Westenberg, Rombouts, & Crone, 2011).

Social emotion processing also seems to develop in line with increasing mentalising ability during adolescence. Social emotions, such as shame and guilt, require representation of others’ mental states. When compared to basic emotions (such as disgust and fear), adolescents recruited the mPFC more strongly than adults, while adults recruited the left ATC more than adolescents (Burnett et al., 2009). Again, this could reflect changes in efficiency or cognitive strategy.

Cognitive distortions

While many of these social cognitive changes are beneficial in the long-term, they can present challenges as they develop alongside the many other changes of adolescence. Two cognitive distortions have been suggested to arise: the imaginary audience and personal fable (Elkind, 1967). Imaginary audience concerns the propensity of adolescents to feel extremely self-conscious, as though others are constantly watching them. Personal fable concerns the belief that they are unique or special, either positively or negatively, and that others cannot understand them. While originally thought to be a result of egocentrism, it’s suggested these distortions could be a result of increased perspective-taking (Vartanian & Powlishta, 1996).

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Cognitive distortions can arise alongside all these changes in social cognition. For example, the increased propensity to feel extremely self-conscious (known as the imaginary audience), or to feel unique and misunderstood (known as the personal fable).

Future Directions

This essay has touched on several common limitations of current research. Firstly, the different definitions of adolescence have seen different studies comparing different age groups. Considering the non-linear observations seen in fMRI and structural studies, this may be limiting precise observations of complex transitions. Individual trajectories through adolescence vary hugely, and most studies use age to probe development rather than, for example, pubertal hormone levels. When looking at social emotion processing, Goddings et al. (2012) found evidence for dissociation between age-related and hormone-related changes in dmPFC and ATC activation, supporting the suggestion of Peper & Dahl (2013) that the role of hormones in adolescent social cognitive development should be further investigated.

As outlined above, whilst we have a rich source of influential fMRI studies, direct examination of the relationship between functional, structural and performance differences during adolescence could help to verify hypotheses of increasing efficiency or changing cognitive strategies.

Finally, many adolescent-typical behaviours, such as heightened risk-taking, are often thought to be due to a developmental delay between affective processing and cognitive control (the ‘dual-systems model’ e.g. Somerville, Jones & Casey, 2010). However, evidence of a more nuanced relationship between these two system exists, with examples where developing social cognition also plays a role (Crone & Dahl, 2012). Studies looking at the relationships between these three systems, which all develop greatly during adolescence, could illuminate new possibilities for tackling key adolescent challenges such as mental health onset (Kilford, Garrett & Blakemore, 2016).

Conclusion

Adolescence represents a period of significant change, and social cognition is no exception. Structural studies suggest possible advances in efficiency or optimisation of the social brain, while functional and behavioural studies show increasing performance in mentalising and related abilities, accompanied by different activations patterns that might suggest increasing efficiency or changing cognitive strategy. This field of research is still relatively young, and there are exciting opportunities to understand how these changes occur, and how they interact with other changing neural systems.

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3 thoughts on “The social brain of a teenager

  1. So interesting!!!! As a teacher, SUCH a useful, thorough piece of writing – so great to have the summary and context given, makes your research so accessible. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This was an interesting and most enlightning piece of work. It certainly helped to explain why my children didn’t really understand me! I also like the light hearted, semi humorous tone which the writer uses. I find this style very engaging and holds one’s attention on potentially dry topics.

    Like

  3. Definitely learnt some new things about my teenage brain through a very accessible summary of the research and its complexities = thanks!

    Like

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