Neural Development of Perspective Taking in Teens

A new study identifies neural correlates of perspective taking in teens

Posted Dec 21, 2010

There's a fascinating study about overconfidence in medicine. It turns out that medical students aren't overconfident; they are not very good at their jobs and they know it. Doctors aren't overconfident either; they are good at their jobs and they know it. But residents tend to be the overconfident ones; they aren't really good at their jobs yet, but they think they are.

Like medical residents, teenagers are in a transitional stage. And you probably don't need research to tell you that teenagers tend to be highly egocentric. Interestingly, though, teens change as they get older; they aren't necessarily more prosocial, but they are better at understanding the perspective of others.

A new article in the journal Psychological Science investigated Changing Brains, Changing Perspectives: The Neurocognitive Development of Reciprocity. The article begins with a wonderful quote:

"When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years." -- Mark Twain

Participants in the study played a trust game. The findings suggested that older adolescents were better at taking the other player's perspective than were younger players.

Functional MRI pointed to increased involvement of the left temporo-parietal junction and the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in the older players. If you don't know what that means, you're not alone, but the article explains. Younger players showed more activity in the anterior medial prefrontal cortex, which is associated with self-oriented processing. Thus different brain areas' relative contributions seem to develop asynchronously.

Taking other people's perspective is among the most difficult things humans do. Compared to other animals we're great at it, but it takes effort. (That's why this blog is called Everybody is Stupid Except You.) It's not surprising that this difficulty is reflected in the brain (what isn't?). But it is interesting to begin to identify the complex interaction between brain mechanisms that give rise to perspective taking.

More Posts