Cognitive Development in Adolescence

Humans are a highly sociable species. We continuously read one other's behaviours, gestures, and faces regarding underlying mental states and emotions, and try to figure out what others are thinking and feeling and what they are about to do next. This is referred to as the theory of mind or mentalizing. The ability to understand the mental states of others develops throughout the first four or five years of life, according to developmental psychology research on the theory of mind.

While specific components of the theory of mind are evident in infancy, it is not until about the age of four that infants begin to comprehend clearly that someone else might hold a view that varies from one's own and that this belief can be erroneous. Understanding the mental states of adolescence is essential in social interaction because it allows us to figure out what other adolescence want and what they are about to do next and then modify our conduct appropriately.

The Social Brain of Adolescence

Many independent researchers have demonstrated remarkable consistency in identifying the brain areas involved in the theory of mind or mentalizing during the last 15 years. These experiments included a variety of stimuli, including stories, phrases, words, cartoons, and animations, all of which were aimed at eliciting the attribution of mental states. The mentalizing task activated a network of areas comprising the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS), the temporoparietal junction (TPJ), the temporal poles, and the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex in each individual.

The concordance between neuroimaging studies in this area is noteworthy. The persistent activity localization within a network of areas comprising the pSTS/TPJ, mPFC, and temporal poles shows that these regions are essential in mentalizing.

Brain lesion investigations have repeatedly shown that the superior temporal lobes and prefrontal cortex are involved in mentalizing since the injury to these brain regions affects mentalizing abilities. Interestingly, one study revealed a patient with severe PFC injury who retained his mental abilities, suggesting that this area is not required for mentalizing.

However, there are other reasons for this unexpected and intriguing discovery. Due to plasticity, this patient likely employed a distinct brain approach in mentalizing tasks. Alternatively, injury to this region at various ages may have distinct consequences for mentalizing abilities. The patient described by Bird and colleagues had her PFC injury suffered at a later age (62 years) than most previously documented individuals with mentalizing task impairments.

MPFC injuries later in life preserve mental capacities, whereas injury early in life is deleterious. MPFC is likely required for mentalizing acquisition but not for subsequent application of mentalizing. This is intriguing because it is consistent with recent evidence from developmental fMRI studies of mentalizing, which indicate that the mPFC contributes differently to mentalizing at various ages.

Adolescent Psychosocial Development

The psychosocial development during this era may be described as developmental activities that emphasise autonomous development, identity formation, and future orientation. The first stage of adolescent development begins when the teenager attempts to become emotionally and financially independent of his or her parents. This conflict begins throughout early adolescence (ages ranging between 12 and 14), marked by forming same-sex peer groups, declining interest in family activities, and disregard for parental guidance.

Adolescents are concerned with how they seem to others at this time. The peer group, which is predominantly same-sex, is frequently idealised and has a tremendous impact on adolescent development. Consequently, adolescents may utilise clothes, hairstyles, language, and other accoutrements to blend in with their classmates.

Adolescents who do not identify with any classmates may also have significant psychological challenges during this period. As they near the conclusion of puberty, adolescents become less concerned with their physical changes. The adolescent's focus switches from self-centeredness to embracing the standards and ideals of broader peer, parental, or adult groups. Clinicians treating teenagers can assist families by explaining that pubertal development frequently necessitates role changes among and between family members, which can increase stress and conflict.

During middle adolescence (ages ranging between 15 and 17 years), the peer group becomes a mixed-sex peer group and takes on the adolescent's principal social function. Adolescents start having brief, passionate "love" relationships in search of the "ideal" companion. It is not unusual for teenagers to have crushes on adults during this era. Adolescents may analyse their personal experiences, link their experiences to others, and become concerned about others as their autonomous functioning grows.

Adolescents have formed separate identities from their parents by late adolescence (ages ranging between 18 and 21). Adolescents may simultaneously drift away from their peer group and strive for adulthood. During this time, adolescent conflict with parents may decrease. As teenagers engage in more stable partnerships, they develop responsible behaviour and a more mature personal value system. Paediatric healthcare providers should be aware that most adolescents gradually seek independence.

Moving away from parents might indicate that the adolescent needs assistance transitioning. According to specific research, 11-year-old girls spend 68% of their time with family and 22% with friends, compared to 46% and 44%, respectively, in 18-year-old females. Anticipatory assistance for parents regarding the rising need for independence can alert parents about this critical developmental period, give direction in encouraging independence in a safe setting, and ease some of the family's concerns.

Online Mentalizing Usage is Still Developing in Mid-Adolescence

Most developmental research on social cognition focuses on early childhood because children can do relatively complicated mentalizing tasks by age four. This is due to a lack of appropriate paradigms. The task's language and executive demands must be raised to construct a mentalizing task that does not elicit ceiling performance in children five and older. This makes it difficult to credit any age-related gain in performance exclusively to greater mentalizing capacity.

However, prolonged structural and functional development of brain areas implicated in the theory of mind throughout adolescence and early adulthood may be predicted to impair mental state comprehension. Furthermore, evidence from social psychology studies shows significant changes in social competence and social behaviour during adolescence, likely due to a more sophisticated way of thinking about and relating to other people, including understanding their mental states.

We recently modified a task that demands the online use of the theory of mind knowing when making judgements in a communication game, which results in many mistakes, even in adults. In our computerized version of the task, participants see a series of shelves containing objects that they are asked to move by a 'director' who can see some but not all of the objects. To correctly comprehend critical orders, participants must adopt the director's viewpoint and only move items that the director can see (the director's condition).


The ability to understand the mental states of others develops throughout the first four or five years of life and is essential in social interaction. Neuroimaging studies have shown that the superior temporal lobes and prefrontal cortex are involved in mentalizing. Adolescence is a period of significant social growth, marked by psychological changes in identity, self-consciousness, and interpersonal relationships.

Recent fMRI studies have revealed that mPFC activity diminishes between adolescence and maturity. mPFC activity diminishes during mentalizing between adolescence and maturity, but two theories have been proposed to explain this. Adolescence is associated with increased social competence and behaviour, but mid-adolescents make more errors in the director's condition.

Updated on: 10-May-2023


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