Changes that Occur in Teens’ Cognition

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

It seems to happen almost overnight. One day parents are sitting down helping their child learn to read and do basic math problems. The next day, the child is explaining to her parents how to do algebra and the finer points of the scientific process. Something has obviously changed but what exactly has changed regarding adolescent cognition is more of a mystery.

Underlying adolescent changes in cognition are the biological changes that happen due to puberty. While parents can easily see or smell the physical changes in their children, it is harder to see how the brain is changing. One of the major changes in the brain is that it goes through a growth spurt. The only other time the brain experiences such a spurt is during infancy. The result is like adding computing power to a computer which allows it to be quicker and do more.

After the brain grows, it spends the rest of adolescence cutting back the growth so that the brain can be more efficient. This is similar to pruning a hedge into a manageable shape. The brain decides which areas to cut based on adolescents’ experiences. In this way, adolescents have quite a bit of control on what their adult brain is going to be able to do. This is one reason why it is so important for parents to give adolescents robust and varied life experiences.

A second major change in the brain is that the communication between various parts of the brain become faster. This means adolescents have quicker reactions and can access information faster than ever. It is one reason why many elite athletes in various sports are teenagers.

Once adolescents receive the upgrades to their brains, they need to learn how their brain works in order to get the most out of it. The process of controlling how the brain works is called executive functioning. At its’ core, executive function dictates how problems will be solved and what information the brain will pay attention to and what it will ignore.

Parents can see changes to their teenagers’ executive function during everyday activities. For example, children can be easily distracted when music is playing while they are working on their math while adolescents can tune out the music and focus on answering the problems. The ability to tune out unimportant information is just one example of adolescents’ executive functioning.

Another skill that develops is the ability to use more effective strategies when adolescents solve problems. For example, counting fingers while solving math problems can be a successful strategy in solving more complex problems but it is far more effective relying on memorized basic math facts as fewer errors occur and the problems are solved more quickly. This is one reason that adolescents are able to solve complex problems more effectively and efficiently than children.

As adolescents start going through puberty, take a moment to notice how their brains are also changing. This can take place during everyday activities, including when your teenager has just punched holes in the logic you are using in an argument.

This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Sunday on January 24, 2015

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