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Transcendent thinking promotes brain growth in adolescents

A new study reveals that a particular mode of thought, historically recognized as a hallmark of adolescent development, may actually facilitate growth in teenagers’ brains. 

Termed “transcendent thinking” by the researchers, this cognitive process extends beyond immediate, tangible aspects of social scenarios to encompass wider ethical, systemic, and personal dimensions. It entails delving into the deeper meanings, historical backgrounds, civic relevance, and foundational concepts within situations.

Understanding adolescent brain development

The study, which makes a significant advancement in understanding adolescent brain development, was led by Professor Mary Helen Immordino-Yang of USC Rossier

The team included other members such as Rebecca J.M. Gotlieb, a research scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and Xiao-Fei Yang, an assistant research professor at USC Rossier. 

Transcendent thinking coordinates brain networks

Previously, Immordino-Yang and her team had established that transcendent thinking in teens and adults activates a comprehensive coordination among various brain networks

This coordination involves crucial networks like the executive control network, which oversees goal-oriented and focused thought processes, and the default mode network, engaged during contemplative thoughts that surpass the immediate environment, such as reminiscing, future planning, experiencing profound emotions, daydreaming, and creative thinking.

Looking at life from someone else’s perspective

The researchers conducted confidential interviews with 65 high school students aged 14-18. The experts explored their responses to real-world stories involving other students around the world, probing into the emotions and insights these stories elicited. 

Following the interviews, participants underwent fMRI brain scans initially and then a follow-up scan two years later, with additional follow-ups as they transitioned into their early twenties.

Universal capacity for transcendent thinking

The investigation revealed a universal capacity among teens to engage in transcendent thought, albeit to varying extents. Crucially, the frequency of such thought was linked to significant brain network coordination over the subsequent two years, independent of IQ or socioeconomic status. 

This progression in brain development was predictive of key milestones like identity formation in late adolescence and overall life satisfaction in early adulthood.

Transcendent thinking and brain growth

Highlighting the unique impact of transcendent thought on brain maturation, the study suggests that this form of thinking fosters growth by necessitating the integration of networks responsible for concentrated, deliberate thought and those facilitating introspection and creative ideation. 

As Immordino-Yang argues, transcendent thinking may assist in brain growth since it requires coordinating brain networks involved in effortful, focused thinking, such the executive control network, with those involved in internal reflection and free-form thinking, like the default mode network. 

Proactive role in shaping brain development

This discovery not only provides insight into adolescent brain development but also holds significant implications for educational approaches and mental health interventions during this critical developmental phase. 

Immordino-Yang stresses the transformative potential of incorporating civically oriented educational methods that resonate with adolescents’ innate drive to understand complex perspectives and emotions in relation to societal and personal issues. 

This approach underscores the proactive role teenagers play in shaping their brain development through the interpretive lens they apply to their social environment.

The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.


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