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Cognitive Development

General Cognitive Changes Adolescents Experience 

Cognitive development refers to changes in the brain that prepare people to think and learn. Just as in early childhood, brains in adolescence undergo a lot of growth and development. These changes will reinforce adolescents’ abilities to make and carry out decisions that will help them thrive now and in the future. The brain grows and strengthens itself in three ways:

  • Growing new brain cells. Adolescence is one of the few times in which the brain produces a large number of cells at a very fast rate. In fact, the brain creates many more cells than will be needed. The extra brain cells give adolescents more places to store information, which helps them learn new skills.
  • Pruning some of the extra growth. The disadvantage of having extra brain cells is that they also decrease the brain’s efficiency. As adolescents go to school, live, and work, the brain trims down the extra growth based on the parts of the brain the adolescent actively uses. This pruning process creates a brain structure than enables adolescents to easily access the information they use most.
  • Strengthening connections. The connections between brain cells are what enable the information stored in the brain to be used in daily life. The brain strengthens these connections by wrapping a special fatty tissue around the cells to protect and insulate them. These changes help adolescents recall information and use it efficiently.

As fast as the changes happen, these processes take time. Different sections of the brain develop at different times, with the part of the brain responsible for abstract thinking, planning, and decision making developing last. Overall, the brain is not fully developed and protected until people are in their mid-twenties. 

Chronic conditions

"The teen's brain is wired for learning."
-- Francis Jensen

The changes in the adolescent brain affect adolescents’ thinking skills. Specifically, young people gain these advantages as the brain grows, prunes, and strengthens connections: 

  • Enhanced learning. New synapses, or gaps between nerve cells through which impulses are transmitted, make the adolescent brain a learning machine that can absorb facts, ideas, and skills.
  • Abstract thinking. Young children mostly understand only things that can be seen or touched. They may understand a portion of abstract ideas, such as love, justice, or fractions, but their understanding is of limited scope. As the brain develops in adolescence, a young person gains a broader understanding of more abstract ideas.  
  • Advanced reasoning. Children generally have limited reasoning that focuses on the information at hand. In contrast, adolescents can predict the results of their actions by using logic to imagine multiple options and different situations. This new ability helps young people plan for their future and consider how their choices will affect that future. 
  • Metacognition. Another new skill adolescents develop is “thinking about thinking”—or metacognition. This practice enables youth to reflect on how they came to an answer or conclusion. This new skill also helps adolescents think about how they learn best and find ways to improve how they absorb new information.  

Adolescence is an ideal time in a person’s life to gain and maintain new skills. The changes in the brain and how they shape a young person’s thinking help prepare adolescents for adult decision-making. Still, parents and other caring adults should remember that the teen brain is not fully developed. In particular, teens may struggle with impulse control and may be more likely to make decisions based on emotions than on logic. In addition, an adolescent’s thinking and decision-making processes may vary from day to day. By keeping these issues in mind, adults can provide the support adolescents need as their brains develop. 

Additional information on adolescent cognitive development can be found in The Teen Years Explained: A Guide to Healthy Adolescent Development, produced by the Center for Adolescent Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.


Content created by Office of Adolescent Health
Content last reviewed on February 6, 2019