Young woman or teen brain

(Photo 102762325 | Black Teen Brain © Denisismagilov |

LOS ANGELES — As any parent, teacher, or anyone who’s been a teenager themselves can attest, adolescence is a time of profound change and growth. Teenagers aren’t just dealing with physical transformations and raging hormones; their brains are undergoing a dramatic remodeling process. So, what influences the course of this neural renovation project? And what does it mean for teens’ lives, not just in the moment but years down the road?

A thought-provoking study by researchers from the University of Southern California has uncovered a fascinating piece of this complex puzzle. The research, published in Nature Scientific Reports, found that the extent to which teens engage in what scientists call “transcendent thinking” – grappling with the broader implications and deeper meanings of their experiences – predicts not only the development of key brain networks but also their sense of identity and even their life satisfaction years later.

To understand what this means, let’s take a step back and look at two important brain networks. The first, called the default mode network, is associated with internally-directed thought – things like reflecting on personal experiences, imagining future scenarios, and mind-wandering. The second, the executive control network, is involved in externally directed, goal-oriented thinking that requires focused attention.

Previous research has shown that these two networks tend to work in opposition – when one is active, the other is usually suppressed. However, there are times when they collaborate, like when we’re engaged in creative thinking, autobiographical reasoning, or imagining the perspectives of others. Essentially, any time we need to bring our reflective capacities to bear on a complex problem or situation.

This is where “transcendent thinking” comes in. Imagine a teenager watching a documentary about a young activist. They might not just think about the immediate details of the story but start to ponder bigger questions: What drives someone to stand up for their beliefs? How can one person make a difference in their community? What does this say about the world we live in? By engaging with these kinds of abstract, meaning-oriented questions – rather than just the concrete “here and now” – the teen is thinking transcendently.

High school student studying, taking exam in class
Researchers found that the extent to which teens engage in transcendent thinking predicts not only the development of key brain networks but also their sense of identity and even their life satisfaction years later. (© Monkey Business –

In the study, the researchers interviewed a diverse group of 14 to 18-year-olds from urban high schools, asking for their thoughts on a series of engaging video clips. They found that every participant displayed some level of transcendent thinking but to varying degrees. Importantly, teens who spontaneously generated more of these “bigger picture” insights showed greater increases in the coordinated activity of their default mode and executive control networks over the next two years.

What’s more, this pattern of brain development was associated with more advanced identity formation another year and a half later, which in turn predicted higher life satisfaction – including satisfaction with themselves, their relationships, and their educational pursuits – when the participants were in their early 20s. In other words, the seeds of transcendent thought sown in adolescence appeared to blossom into a clearer sense of self and greater fulfillment down the line.

Critically, this developmental cascade was not explained by differences in the teens’ socioeconomic status, demographics, or even IQ scores. It seemed to hinge on their natural inclination to reflect deeply on their social world and their place in it.

So, what can we take away from these intriguing findings? For one, they suggest that the typical teenage penchant for questioning, philosophizing, and thinking about life’s “big questions” isn’t just a phase to be endured – it may actually serve an important purpose in shaping the brain and setting the stage for healthy development into adulthood.

This isn’t to say that every adolescent daydream or late-night bull session is going to be transformative. However, by encouraging young people’s natural curiosity about the social and moral landscape around them and supporting their efforts to make sense of their experiences, we may be providing valuable fuel for their neurological and psychological growth.

The researchers note that educational practices like civics-oriented community learning and programs that encourage youth to grapple with complex societal issues may be particularly beneficial in this regard. By meeting teenagers where they are developmentally and providing rich opportunities for transcendent thought, we can cultivate not just healthier brains but more thoughtful, purposeful, and engaged citizens.

Of course, much more research is needed to fully understand these processes and how to support them. But in the meantime, perhaps we can all benefit from taking a page out of the adolescent playbook – stepping back from the daily grind now and then to contemplate the bigger picture and to find a little more meaning in this strange, wonderful journey of life.

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