How do young people think?
Prof. Dr. Nicola Ferdinand / Psychology
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Finding one's own identity

Psychologist Prof. Dr. Nicola Ferdinand and the project: "How do adolescents think?"

Adolescence refers to the period in human development that stretches from the onset of puberty into young adulthood. It is also a period when entire families change. Adolescents are on their way to finding their own identity, and this is sometimes very hard for them and also for their environment. At Bergische Universität, psychologist Prof. Dr. Nicola Ferdinand, in her Department of Psychology with a focus on neurocognitive development and behavioral regulation, is investigating the question in a project: How do adolescents think?

Interconnection of nerve cells

Although the brain of adolescents, superficially, already looks almost like an adult brain, the scientist explains, it nevertheless undergoes enormous thinking and maturation processes at this age. "Our brain consists largely of nerve cells that are interconnected to form networks," says Ferdinand, going on to explain neurobiologically: "The fact is that our brain first produces far too many interconnections that we don't need at all. Then, subsequently, it is refined, the circuits that we need are improved, stabilized, others are cut because we don't use them at all. Where and when that happens in the brain varies by brain area." In adolescence, this happens primarily in the frontal part of the brain, called the frontal cortex, which is largely responsible for our behavioral control, she continues. "We call it cognitive control, meaning that this part of the brain ensures that we don't have to react to every impulse, but can also suppress actions, that we can plan and think rationally with foresight. In middle adolescence, i.e. from about the age of 14, the highest density of circuitry is reached here, and only then does this process of working out the important circuitry begin. So behavioral control at this point is not as mature as it is in adults." Their development is making great strides here, however.

"In addition, an area of the brain deeper inside the brain called the limbic system is hyperactive in adolescence. It's responsible for emotions, but also for how we process rewards." Adolescents are then particularly emotional, particularly receptive to rewards, he said. This explains to some extent the sometimes quite arbitrary behavior, which is, however, important in order to mature into socially competent beings. A third point concerns the interconnection of nerve cells over longer distances in the brain, which makes the connections more efficient and faster. This, he said, is done through a kind of insulating layer that is formed around the neurons. "This is what allows communication to really happen in the first place, for example, between the "emotional part" and the frontal, "rational part." Those three critical things happen in adolescence."

Creativity in problem solving and flexibility in thinking

Adolescents are still highly variable in their behavior as a result of this development. You can't always predict exactly how they will behave in a given situation, he said. Whether they use behavioral control depends very much on the motivational and emotional context, he said. "If I think it's going to pay off for me, that is, that it's going to be rewarding if I behave in a risky way, then of course I'm going to do that. And if I think that I might get recognition from my peers -who are very important at that age- for driving risky, then I'm more likely to do that than I am to do that later, in adulthood, when those developmental processes are complete."

For a long time, this variable behavior was only framed in negative terms; young people were seen as risk-taking, rebellious, irrational and unconventional. Today, people are looking at it more positively again. "There is a very high flexibility in the thinking of adolescents, and it is this flexibility that actually enables them to master their developmental tasks during this time," the scientist explains. "This includes, for example, detaching oneself to a certain extent from the parental home and the behavioral patterns that may have been adopted, trying out one's own, developing an identity, a personality oneself and also getting along in the group of peers in the outside world. Of course, creativity in problem solving and flexibility in thinking, as well as a certain tendency to take risks, help here. That's what makes you try new things in the first place."

More willingness to take risks in uncertain situations

The Wuppertal project uses tasks to investigate how young people process information and make decisions. "We are pursuing two research approaches in the field here at the department," Ferdinand explains. "One is that we give adolescents learning tasks that they work on at the PC or tasks where they have to use cognitive control." The second approach examines decision-making behavior. To do this, Ferdinand and her colleague, Dr. Corinna Lorenz, run driving simulations with the teens on PCs, for example, to test their willingness to take risks. "You can then see that they can behave very rationally in certain situations, but not in others. We are currently investigating in particular whether the uncertainty of the situation has anything to do with it. After all, it's suspected that adolescents are more likely to show a tendency to engage in risky behavior when it's uncertain what the consequences of their behavior may be." Computer-based card games also offer the researchers a wide variety of ways to analyze risk behaviors. "In doing so, we look at what happens when you win or lose in a card game. Are people more cautious when they've just lost? Or do you take risks just then because the losses might not be as severe?" Again, the influence of the peer group is important, he said. For example, praise from peers can decisively change performance relative to neutral situations, he said. "We try to influence decision behavior by, for example, creating emotional situations, using reward incentives or different motivators. So we change the decision-making situation to see how the adolescents react and whether this results in higher risk behavior."

In addition, Ferdinand also uses EEG(electroencephalogram) to record the subjects' brain activity to make further conclusions about performance. It is exciting that rewards can be used in a targeted manner even in adolescence," the researcher says, "in order to increase the willingness to perform.

Special influencing factors, but the same themes

Adolescents are impressionable, and that's normal, Ferdinand knows. "If you look at developmental tasks, and that includes detachment from familiar structures, such as the parental home, combined with self-discovery, finding one's own norms and values and identity, then it's actually already clear that adolescents have a certain susceptibility to being influenced." At this point, he said, peers are very important, because "adolescents can be influenced particularly strongly by their peers. Very especially if they are exposed to peer pressure, for example. It's not for nothing that some young people go off the rails at this age. If you get into the wrong groups, are confronted with the wrong peer pressure, you can be very susceptible to influence. It certainly always depends on what is really 'cool' for young people. And those were different things twenty years ago than they are today." The psychologist attributes a great deal of influence to social media today. The cell phone, for example, seems to have literally grown attached to the hand at this age, and that certainly influences many young people in their thinking and behavior. "The themes are always the same today, too. A certain kind of rebellion is part of it, because you have to break away from conventions and find your own. The change in one's own body also plays an important role, you have to learn to deal with that, and that's something that has always driven young people."

Less conflict through more autonomy

Everyone knows conflicts with parents from their own experience. In the past, parents were often against everything teenagers did, but today they are often even invited to the party. "I could imagine that it's because parenting behavior has changed. In the past, people were raised in a much more authoritarian way with rigid rules, which then all of a sudden disappeared when they reached the age of majority," says Ferdinand. "But that has changed today. Ideally, children are given more freedom and opportunities to try things out, in line with their age. Autonomy is supported rather than contained. You want them to develop into independent people. And as a result, parents no longer lend themselves as strongly as a subject for rebellion." However, rebellion shows up in a wide variety of ways, the researcher explains. That could also be the music taste, which perhaps unconventionally also times the whole house zudrön or an extreme kind of sport. Also special fashion trends, the enforcement of a tattoo or hairstyles can belong to this category.

Sometimes young people can't help themselves

Neuroscientists and psychologists are working to better understand the adolescent brain. Young people's mental health plays an important role in this. "It's quite important to establish an understanding of why adolescents behave the way they do and not differently," Ferdinand explains. "If there are neurophysiological or neurochemical explanations for it, it's easier to understand that sometimes adolescents can't help themselves. They have to go through this phase, they have to deal with their physical changes. This also includes the changes in the brain. They have to work through their developmental tasks to mature into independent young adults."

"Also, interestingly, the effect of sex hormones in the brain in terms of changes in thinking and behavior is not well understood at all," Ferdinand says, "but with testosterone in particular, evidence is accumulating that it correlates with risk behaviors. The higher the testosterone level, the more likely you are to find risk-taking." If caregivers understand that, a more relaxed interaction can develop, he said, and people are then more likely not to take everything as a personal attack, even if it's phrased that way. "Young people are looking for points of friction. And you can also, if you understand these biological and social mechanisms, develop prevention programs specifically for young people, where you pay attention to these mechanisms." That could be, for example, a neutrally designed context in which to talk to them. A good base with other peers can also be helpful, he said. "Parents continue to be very important attachment and reference persons, even if new friends come along. When adolescents are overwhelmed, parents are still the most important point of contact and support. They can promote autonomy, allow freedom and still set certain rules that must be followed, because young people are not yet young adults and still need rules and structures. Parents can and should still provide those."

Becoming a parent is not difficult, but being a parent is," says a proverb that describes the often difficult accompaniment of young people by adults. Professor Ferdinand puts it this way: "There is a fine line between the freedoms that should be given so that young people can try things out for themselves and develop, and clear, prescribed rules that they must also abide by. You have to find a balance because, if you slip too much to one side, it can set off a whole cascade of negative consequences. If you restrict freedom too much, you get more rebellion. If one allows it all, they may get into trouble more easily. Hitting the exact middle is the art."

The Department of Psychology, with a focus on neurocognitive development and behavioral regulation, is always looking for study participants between the ages of 8-19 and 65-80. Subjects will receive an expense allowance for their participation. Those interested can contact or 0202-439 5317 (Mon to Thu 10-12).

Uwe Blass 

Prof. Dr. Nicola Ferdinand heads the Department of Psychology with a focus on neurocognitive development and behavioral regulation in the Faculty of Human and Social Sciences at Bergische Universität.

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