PsycCRITIQUES - American Psychological Association


Madigan Healthcare System

The Midwest Book Review


PsycCRITIQUES - American Psychological Association

Accounting for human behavior is never easy. Making sense of adolescent behavior is even more challenging. Teenagers do not demonstrate the behavioral regularities of younger children or (older) young adults. The various threats to health and well-being rampant in adolescent behavior-impulsive behavior; risk taking; hasty, poorly thought-out decisions concerning life and limb; harmful peer influence; high intelligence paired with irrational decision making-annoy and mystify. 

Adolescence is a period of development with enhanced risk of morbidity and mortality. "During adolescence, individuals are prone to increased rates of vehicle accidents, unintentional injuries, driving without seatbelts, carrying weapons, using illicit drugs, and engaging in unprotected sex" (The Adolescent Brain: Learning, Reasoning, and Decision Making, p. 228). The sort of behavior typified in adolescent criminal activity and associated legal and moral issues have stirred the media and the justice system (Steinberg & Scott, 2003). 

The merger of 40 years of cognitive science with powerful emergent findings from brain imaging (functional magnetic resonance imaging) is the foundation for understanding adolescent development presented in The Adolescent Brain. Cognitive science, with its focus on human thinking and decision making, integrated with longitudinal brain imaging studies (neuroscience) has created a powerful new paradigm (cognitive neuroscience) that is likely to dominate future psychology in all age groups. Studies of human cognition previously limited to the laboratory may now be validated by real-time brain imaging, creating a longed-for integration overcoming the Cartesian split between psychology and biology. The emergent field-cognitive neuroscience-promises to be a dominant paradigm in psychology. 

This tightly integrated volume illustrates the new paradigm with a series of chapters organized into three sections, all of which are grounded in brain imaging. The three sections-Memory, Meaning, and Representation; Learning, Reasoning, and Problem Solving; and Judgment and Decision Making-focus on higher cognition and underlying neuroscience in adolescents. The authors note the book's short time lag between basic research and policy implementation, with a "special emphasis on brain development and on learning of scientific reasoning and mathematical knowledge and skills that are relevant to real-world applications of comprehension, reasoning, judgment, and decision making" (p. 4). 

The content is fresh and cutting-edge. Throughout the book's chapters, the neurobiology of cognitive abilities is made explicit in a number of domains. What emerges from The Adolescent Brain is a way of thinking about all human-not just teenage-behavior. 

Several chapters present paradigm-shifting information. Chapter 1, the foundation of all chapters that follow, presents exciting information on longitudinal brain-imaging studies. Made possible by new imaging technologies, "the capacity to safely acquire longitudinal brain maturation data has launched a new era of child and adolescent neuroscience" (p. 16). The evolving database includes 6,000 images from over 2,000 subjects between the ages of 3 and 30 years. Presentation of the anatomic trajectories typical of childhood and adolescence makes fascinating reading. One learns about the basic child and adolescent developmental biology of the brain: total cerebral volume, development of the cerebellum, lateral ventricles, white and gray matter, basal ganglia, and subcortical gray matter. 

This is not dry neuroanatomy but a clear understanding of the brain's rapid change and the impact on easily observable behavior. It is astonishing to read that the brain achieves its peak of growth in girls around 11 years and in boys around 14 to 15 years of age: "The NIMH study found robust sex differences in developmental trajectories for nearly all structures with GM [gray matter] volume peaks in developmental trajectories occurring 1 to 4 years earlier in females" (p. 26). It is not surprising that different parts of the brain develop faster than others ("the pattern of maturation is for GM to peak earliest in primary sensorimotor areas and latest in high order association areas that integrate those primary functions such as dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, inferior parietal, and superior temporal gyrus," p. 23). 

The relatively late maturation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex "primarily involved with judgment, decision making, and impulse control, has prominently entered discourse affecting the social, legislative, judicial, parenting, and educational realms" (p. 29). As it turns out, the information is not limited to adolescents but forms the basis for understanding human cognition and decision making across the life span. 

Although brain-imaging findings are clearly compelling, this is not a neuroanatomy book. Linkage to cognitive science, environmental factors, development of the capacity to do math and of correlative ways of thought and reasoning, and the critical role of emotions in adolescent behavior take up the remaining chapters, and emerging approaches to training the brain for higher cognition are discussed in the epilogue. 

The Adolescent Brain presents an emergent, cognitive neuroscience-based human psychology. Consistent with earlier knowledge derived from neuropsychology and neuroanatomy, it is now clear that human judgment is based on a frontally mediated, top¬down-control brain model. Longitudinal brain studies show that components of decision making develop asymmetrically (imbalance theory), with the lower limbic areas subserving reward and affect maturing earlier than frontal areas of the brain associated with "higher cognition." Human beings are "dual processors," with two systems of thought: System 1 focused on reward and short-term immediate actions, and System 2 focused on rational decision making. Freud's clinical observations on primary process, ruled by the pleasure principle, and secondary process, ruled by the reality principle, find a powerful contemporary neuroscience validation. 

Forty years of cognitive science focused on human decision making demonstrate that people are cognitive "misers," tending to solve problems in the most efficient and least demanding manner, through the use of error-prone heuristics. "Many effects in the heuristics and biases literature are the result of the human tendency to default to miserly processing: anchoring biases, framing effects, preference reversals, nondisjunctive reasoning, myside biases, and status quo biases, to name just a few" (p. 347). 

Evolutionary theory is deeply embedded here, emphasizing the survival value of System 1 cognition. In one of the meatiest chapters in the book, the conceptual and empirical distinctions between intelligence and rationality are developed. Conceptual and empirical links between intelligence and rationality are emerging, focused on fluid as opposed to crystalized processing and the central role of working memory in higher thought. Intelligence tests do not assess rationality. Intelligence is weakly related to the ability to think rationally: "The judgment and decision making tasks that represent the operational definition of rational thought are neither empirically nor conceptually identifiable with intelligence" (p. 344). 

Decision making can be impaired by affect, short-term reward incentives, and miserly thinking noted above. One area of great concern for national productivity is innumeracy, the failure of students and adults to achieve higher cognition associated with mathematical skills. The chapter on noncognitive factors in mathematics highlights the difficulties a large section of the adolescent and adult population has in dealing with math. The authors make the shocking observation that if educational achievement in the American population were to match the levels of the highest performing countries in mathematics, reasoning, and science, the benefit to the American economy would amount to $100 trillion! 

The most exciting ideas to emerge from this book address the issue of brain plasticity. Old notions that brain plasticity and cognitive development essentially end after adolescence are slowly being supplanted by studies showing that brain plasticity may be enhanced by training. These ideas have huge implications for our educational system, based on a 19th¬century agrarian-based economy, for thinking of education as training in rationality. A number of studies are cited that address a new way of thinking about education, viewing pedagogy as progressive brain plasticity training. Cognitive training approaches "study the trainability of cognitive processes that contribute to mathematics, reading, and language, and more generally intelligence . . . enabling individuals to rapidly improve their intellectual and cognitive abilities" (p. 213). 

New studies demonstrate new skills in rational thought that generalize to neurotransmitter systems and other areas of cognitive skill. Thought process rather than knowledge acquisition is the focus: "Brain areas that exhibit enhanced activity following cognitive training are those mostly related to executive control and working memory" (p. 221). In emergent studies, researchers are now examining brain plasticity in nonadolescent populations, revising old theories (Sanders, 2012). These new approaches are being applied to disorders characterized by a lack of cognitive control-for example, attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, and age-related decline in mental functioning-having implications for child and adult education as a whole. 

The Adolescent Brain opens up new vistas of thinking about human behavior that are not limited to adolescence. The linkage between cognitive science and neuroscience, maturation of the cognitive psychology of thought and decision making, and the emergence of new ideas about brain plasticity are likely to dominate American psychology as a new frontier and paradigm for the foreseeable future. In this situation, a cognitive neuroscience foundation for American psychology energizes psychology with great power in studying, assessing, and changing human nature. 


Sanders, L. (2012). The brain set free: Lifting neural constraints could turn back time, making way for youthful flexibility. Science News, 182, 18-21. doi:10.1002/ scin.5591820322 

Steinberg, L., & Scott, E. (2003). Less guilty by reason of adolescence: Developmental immaturity, diminished responsibility, and the juvenile death penalty. American Psychologist, 58, 1009-1018. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.58.12.1009 

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International in scope, this collection includes essays by a variety of authors. The topics they take up are current and pertinent. The book's brilliant blend of applied and foundational focus works extremely well. For example, the book includes discussion of the fact that adolescents do not retain arbitrary associations well, which has implications for education. Other topics include the risky behavior characteristic of adolescence and the paradox of increased mental ability but poor decision making. In the preface, Reyna (human development and psychology, Cornell Univ.) provides an explanation of the organization of the collection, the five sections of which are "Foundations," "Memory, Meaning, and Representation," "Learning, Reasoning, and Problem Solving," "Judgment and Foundations," and "Epilogue." Three of the 14 essays have a connection to mathematics, which may not appeal to all readers. Summing Up: Recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty and professionals. --W. S. Miner, Truman State University

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Madigan Healthcare System

Description: Although brain development is often lumped into the general periods of childhood and adulthood, there is enough happening during the 18 years that usually define childhood to warrant specific attention to a more discrete period of time late into childhood. This book explores adolescent neurodevelopment and associated functional outcomes. 

Purpose: The aim is to provide a review of the science in the area of adolescent neurodevelopment, as well as to illuminate potential research areas rife with opportunity for major breakthroughs.  Audience

This book is intended for cognitive neuroscientists, neuropsychologists, and developmental psychologists. The book assumes familiarity with cognitive neuroscience paradigms and experimental design, as well as neuroanatomy. The authors are scholarly contributors to this area of study.  

Features: An overview of developmental neuroanatomy, mostly from the perspective of MRI studies, begins the book. The very clear graphs that illustrate key points are so well done, it might be tempting to skip the text, but the text addresses important aspect of the general variability of neuroanatomic structure in normal development and the profound implications this has for the specificity of neuropathological interpretations. Subsequent sections clearly integrate bench science and functional applications. For example, one chapter describes the development of critical thinking skills and reasoning in the context of cultural and societal phenomena, such as the rapid access to information via the Internet. This is further expanded with a review of the literature on non-neurologic factors that influence brain development and cognitive functioning, such as anxiety, self-efficacy, pressure, and motivation. Intriguing chapters on neuroplasticity provide unique insights into the ongoing changes of the brain throughout adolescence and into adulthood, challenging previous notions of a static development at adulthood maturation levels. The references are current to 2011 and frequently include articles from within the last three years.  Assessment

This is an excellent contribution to the neuroscience literature, addressing a gap in the neurodevelopmental literature in an intriguing and thoughtful manner.  

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The Midwest Book Review

The Adolescent Brain: Learning, Reasoning, and Decision Making is an anthology of scholarly essays by learned psychologists about the latest cutting-edge discoveries and theories concerning young people's brains and mental processes, especially with regard to processing information and making difficult judgments. Individual writings include "Representation and Transfer of Abstract Mathematical Concepts in Adolescence and Young Adulthood", "Training the Adolescent Brain: Neural Plasticity and the Acquisition of Cognitive Abilities", "Risky Behavior in Adolescents: The Role of the Developing Brain", and much more. In a modern world that demands increasing amounts of education, skills and expertise in its emerging workforce, the scientific explorations of how young people cognitively develop in The Adolescent Brain take on a stringently urgent, immediately practical value. The Adolescent Brain is highly recommended especially for college library Psychology shelves. 

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