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Cognitive Development in Adolescence

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Cognitive Development in Adolescence

What kind of concert costs only 45 cents? A 50 Cent concert featuring Nickelback. Why did Adele cross the road? To say hello from the other side. Regardless if these puns made you laugh, if you understood them, chances are you have reached or made it through adolescence. Being able to think abstractly to understand a pun is one of the many milestones of cognitive development in adolescence.

  • What processes happen during cognitive development in adolescence?
  • What are the important stages in cognitive development in adolescence?
  • What factors affect the cognitive development in adolescence?
  • Why is cognitive development in adolescence important?

The Meaning of Cognitive Development in Adolescence

By the time adolescence begins, cognitive development moves towards what Jean Piaget called formal operational thinking. According to Piaget, this is the final stage of cognitive development and follows the concrete operational stage during childhood. At this point, adolescents begin to ask deeper questions about life and may start their search for spirituality. Within the brain, brain cells continue to grow. Unused or unneeded brain cells are eliminated through a process called pruning. Connections in the brain during adolescence are also strengthened through use.

Jean Piaget's Stages of Cognitive Development

1) Sensorimotor Stage (birth to 2 years)

2) Preoperational Stage (2 to 7 years)

3) Concrete Operational Stage (7 to 11 years)

4) Formal Operational Stage (12 years and up)

The Process of Cognitive Development in Adolescence

The primary changes that occur in cognitive development in adolescence are abstract thinking, abstract reasoning, metacognition, moral reasoning, improved attention, and improved decision-making.

Abstract Thinking and Reasoning

As cognitive development in adolescence continues, abstract thinking and reasoning improve. Adolescents are able to process information more quickly as their working memory is strengthened. Additionally, the ability to form ideas about hypothetical issues such as scientific problems or the meaning of life becomes easier. Unlike younger children, adolescents are able to understand sarcasm, puns, and metaphors and they are much more capable of suppressing irrelevant responses.

Metacognition

During adolescence, teens begin to develop the ability to think about thinking. This type of processing is called metacognition. Adolescents spend a lot of time thinking about themselves and what others think about them. One common tendency is for them to believe that their thoughts and feelings are unique. In other words, they may feel as though their parents couldn’t possibly know how they feel. David Elkind referred to this as a personal fable.

Personal fable refers to the adolescent's belief that their feelings, thoughts, and emotions are so special and unique that no one could possibly understand or relate.

Another consequence of metacognition is that adolescents often think that everyone notices what they do and how they look. Elkin called this the imaginary audience. Adolescents become so consumed by what they think other people are thinking about them that they fall victim to adolescent egocentrism.

Adolescent egocentrism describes the way that adolescents become completely absorbed in their own thoughts and feelings.

While metacognition often results in teens being more self-absorbed, it can also allow them to see future consequences and plan ahead.

Moral Reasoning

One of the most significant changes that occur in the cognitive development of adolescence is moral reasoning. As thinking and reasoning become more abstract, adolescents begin to reshape how they think and act morally. Piaget believed that cognitive development was the cornerstone of moral reasoning. Lawrence Kohlberg expanded on Piaget's ideas and suggested that the moral actions of adolescents are guided by improved moral reasoning. He developed three stages in the development of moral thinking.

Improved Attention

During adolescence, attention begins to improve as well. Adolescents become more able to focus on the task at hand and ignore distracting stimuli. Selective attention improves, which is the ability to focus on one thing while tuning out another. Divided attention improves as well: the ability to pay attention to more than one thing at a time.

Decision-Making

Since cognitive development in adolescence has progressed toward thinking more critically and considering hypotheticals, there is some improvement in decision-making skills. However, studies on decision-making are surprisingly few and researchers are still trying to understand how decision-making progresses through life. Regardless, we know that the prefrontal cortex, responsible for impulse control, is still developing in the adolescent brain until around age 25. Therefore, although adolescents have a similar ability to identify consequences as adults, they may be more likely to take risks. Adolescents seem to focus more on the reward than the consequences of their actions.

Stages of Cognitive Development in Adolescence

As soon as a child reaches adolescence, they do not suddenly obtain the complex cognitive abilities that develop during adolescence. Cognitive development occurs gradually and each stage of adolescence (early, middle, and late) has unique cognitive characteristics.

Early Adolescence

Early adolescence is approximately between the ages of 11-14. At this stage, adolescents begin to form an interest in careers but are mainly focused on the present and near future. They are just beginning the transition from concrete to formal operational thinking and may begin to challenge parents and other authority figures. It is common for an adolescent to form their own thoughts and views on a topic.

Middle Adolescence

Middle adolescence is approximately between the ages of 14-18. Adolescents begin to think in more complex ways, consider more philosophical ideas, and start thinking about thinking. They start analyzing and asking questions more extensively and they begin to form their own ethics and moral code. Middle adolescence is usually when teens think more about the future and start thinking more long-term.

Late Adolescence (Emerging Adulthood)

By late adolescence (approximately ages 18-24), personal decision-making is accomplished through more complex thinking rather than impulse. Older adolescents have likely established their thoughts about broader topics such as politics and may begin debating against opposing views. Their thinking is more focused on career decisions and what their emerging role will be as an adult.

Factors Affecting Cognitive Development in Adolescence

Several factors during adolescence can affect cognitive development. Genes play some role in cognition as well as brain structure and mental health. However, several environmental factors can have a significant impact on cognitive development in adolescence. These factors include healthy habits, family environment, and learning strategies.

Healthy Habits

Healthy habits during adolescence can significantly impact cognitive development. For example, studies show that iodine deficiencies and iron deficiencies can negatively impact cognitive development during adolescence. Establishing good sleeping habits can also help facilitate cognitive development in adolescence. Studies show that sleep can act as a cognitive protective factor since it is vital to attention, learning, and cognition. It can also act as a way to recover from stress in an adolescent's life.

Cognitive Development in Adolescence a teen boy asleep on a bed StudySmarterAdolescents and sleep, freepik.com

Finally, avoiding substance abuse during adolescence is especially important to healthy cognitive development. As the adolescent brain is still growing, drug and alcohol use can interfere with its development and affect cognitive skills.

DeBry and Tiffany (2007) found that the neurotoxins in tobacco or cigarettes can cause damage to the orbitofrontal cortex of the brain which plays a role in impulse control. Due to a lower level of impulse control, those who use tobacco early in life can have a much harder time quitting later on.

Family Environment

The family environment can also play a large role in cognitive development in adolescence. Early childhood trauma, stress such as marital conflict, and socioeconomic status can all contribute to cognitive development. While parental involvement in learning may not be as important during adolescence as it is during childhood, parents can support cognitive development by supporting decision-making, allowing reasonable levels of risk-taking, modelling healthy emotional behaviours, and supporting problem-solving by avoiding too much lecturing.

Learning Strategies

The amount of time a teen is willing to commit to learning may have a larger impact on cognitive development than basic parental learning. Teachers and educators should aim to encourage adolescents to want to learn and encourage them in the activities they enjoy. Also, cognitive development in adolescence can be fostered in the classroom by having discussions about a variety of topics and using Socratic methods of instruction (question-and-answer).

The Importance of Cognitive Development in Adolescence

Adolescence is one of the most vital periods of cognitive development. Positive cognitive development during adolescence can protect against the development of issues later in life. Proper cognitive development promotes the development of healthy emotional functioning. Cognitive development in adolescence can increase or decrease vulnerability to developing a depressive disorder during adolescence and later in life.

Cognitive Development in Adolescence - Key takeaways

  • By the time adolescence begins, cognitive development moves towards what Jean Piaget called formal operational thinking.
    • The primary changes that occur in cognitive development in adolescence are abstract thinking, abstract reasoning, metacognition, moral reasoning, improved attention, and improved decision-making.
  • Adolescent egocentrism describes the way that adolescents become completely absorbed in their own thoughts and feelings.
  • The prefrontal cortex, responsible for impulse control, is still developing in the adolescent brain until around age 25.
  • Cognitive development occurs gradually and each stage of adolescence (early, middle, and late) includes unique cognitive characteristics.
  • Several environmental factors can have a significant impact on cognitive development in adolescence: healthy habits, family environment, and learning strategies.

Frequently Asked Questions about Cognitive Development in Adolescence

Cognitive development in adolescence is the process by which our brain and thought processes mature. 

An example of cognitive development in adolescence is beginning to think in more complex ways, consider more philosophical ideas, and start thinking about thinking. 

The stages of cognitive development in adolescence are early adolescence (ages 11-14), middle adolescence (ages 14-18) and late adolescence (18-24).

Characteristics of cognitive development in adolescence include abstract thinking, abstract reasoning, metacognition, moral reasoning, improved attention, and improved decision-making. 

Factors affecting cognitive development in adolescence include genetics, brain structure, mental health, healthy habits, family environment, and learning strategies.. 

Final Cognitive Development in Adolescence Quiz

Question

Which of Piaget's stages occurs during adolescence? 

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Answer

Formal operational thinking

Show question

Question

What changes in thinking and reasoning occur in adolescence? 

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Answer

Adolescents gain the ability to form ideas about hypothetical issues such as scientific problems or the meaning of life becomes easier.

Show question

Question

_____________ refers to the adolescent's belief that their feelings, thoughts, and emotions are so special and unique that no one could possibly understand or relate. 

Show answer

Answer

Personal fable

Show question

Question

________________ is the phenomenon in which adolescents are incapable of distinguishing between their perceptions of what others think and the reality of what others actually think. 


Show answer

Answer

Adolescent egocentrism

Show question

Question

True or false? Adolescents are still unable to ignore distracting stimuli or focus on the task at hand?

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Answer

False

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Question

How did Lawrence Kohlberg expand on Piaget's ideas?

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Answer

Kohlberg suggested that the moral actions of adolescents are guided by moral reasoning. He eventually developed his own levels of moral thinking

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Question

Which of the following may not explain why adolescents are often more likely to take risks than adults? 


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Answer

Adolescents are not able to identify consequences similar to adults. 

Show question

Question

At which stage do adolescents begin to form an interest in careers but are mainly focused on the present and near future.

Show answer

Answer

Early Adolescence

Show question

Question

At which stage do adolescents begin to think in more complex ways, consider more philosophical ideas, and start thinking about thinking.

Show answer

Answer

Middle Adolescence

Show question

Question

Studies show that _______ can act as a protective factor as it is vital to attention, learning, and cognition

Show answer

Answer

sleep

Show question

Question

True or False? Cognitive development in adolescence can increase or decrease one's vulnerability to develop a depressive disorder during adolescence and/or later in life. 

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Answer

True

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Question

Which of the following is not a way that parents can support cognitive development in adolescence?

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Answer

Prevent any risk-taking of any kind. 

Show question

Question

True or False? The amount of time a teen is willing to commit may have a larger impact on cognitive development than basic parental learning.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

What did DeBry and Tiffany (2007) find?


Show answer

Answer

DeBry and Tiffany (2007) found that the neurotoxins caused by early tobacco or cigarette use may cause damage to the orbitofrontal cortex of the brain which plays a role in impulse control.  Therefore, due to a lower level of impulse control, those who used tobacco early in life have a much harder time quitting.

Show question

Question

True or False? Brain structure and mental health play no role in cognitive development in adolescence. 


Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

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