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…Read More »