Landmark study shows that ‘transcendent’ thinking may grow teens’ brains over time

CANDLE scientists find that adolescents who grapple with the bigger meaning of social situations experience greater brain growth, which predicts stronger identity development and life satisfaction years later.

By USC Rossier

Scientists at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education’s Center for Affective Neuroscience, Development, Learning and Education (CANDLE), have shown for the first time that a type of thinking, that has been described for over a century as a developmental milestone of adolescence, may grow teenagers’ brains over time. This kind of thinking, which the study’s authors call “transcendent,” moves beyond reacting to the concrete specifics of social situations to also consider the broader ethical, systems-level and personal implications at play. Engaging in this type of thinking involves analyzing situations for their deeper meaning, historical contexts, civic significance, and/or underlying ideas.

The research team, led by USC Rossier Professor Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, includes Rebecca J.M. Gotlieb, research scientist at UCLA, and Xiao-Fei Yang, assistant research professor at USC Rossier. The published study “Diverse adolescents’ transcendent thinking predicts young adult psychosocial outcomes via brain network development” is published in Nature Scientific Reports.

In previous studies, the authors had shown that when teens and adults think about issues and situations in a transcendent way, many brain systems coordinate their activity, among them two major networks important for psychological functioning: the executive control network and the default mode network. The executive control network is involved in managing focused and goal-directed thinking, while the default mode network is active during all kinds of thinking that transcends the “here and now,” such as when recalling personal experiences, imagining the future, feeling enduring emotions such as compassion, gratitude and admiration for virtue, daydreaming or thinking creatively.

Read the full article here.


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