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Ivar Pelt

Spinoza Prize for ‘puberty professor’ Eveline Crone

Eveline Crone, Professor of Neurocognitive Developmental Psychology, has been awarded the NWO Spinoza Prize for her high-profile research on adolescent development. NWO announced the award on 16 June. What will Crone do with the award of 2.5 million euros?

Insights into adolescent behaviour

Crone’s innovative insights (1975) have opened up a completely new field of research that is now flourishing, according to NWO. Crone is one of the first researchers to carry out a longitudinal study of a group of adolescents, covering their behaviour and neurological processes in the brain.  Those areas of the brain that experience an event as a pleasure or a reward have been shown to be extremely sensitive during puberty, while those parts that are important in impulse control and planning (the prefrontal cortex) are still developing. Crone has discovered that the prefrontal cortex in young people is more flexible than was originally thought. This part of the brain becomes more active if their social status is under threat or if they are challenged about their creativity. NWO concludes  that the insights from Crone’s research will benefit education, upbringing and youth policies. 

What was your reaction to the award?

‘I was enormously surprised when I heard about it, so much so that I was shaking. It was Stan Gielen, chairman of NWO, who called me in the evening to tell me the news. The next day I really thought I’d dreamt it.  But it’s starting to become real now. It’s the crowning glory of my work and for me it represents an appreciation of my research approach. Many neuroscientists look at only one process in the brain, but as a neurocognitive developmental psychologist I study how multiple processes develop in relation to one another.’

NWO praises your contribution to the re-assessment of puberty

‘Around 10 to 15 per cent of adolescents have problems. The remaining 85 per cent also face challenges, but they don’t exhibit any extreme risk behaviour such as vandalism or binge drinking. And yet, adolescents generally have a poor reputation.  Our research brings out some more positive findings: young people who try out different identities, for example, often have a lot of self-confidence at a later age. And friends also have a positive influence on one another if they’re socially minded.  And, by the way, in terms of their social development, we found hardly any differences between young people in pre-university education and those in vocational schools, not even in their risk behaviour. That’s a real stigma for youngsters in lower-level schools, but there are a lot of pupils at high schools who also exhibit highly risky behaviour.’

What are you going to do with the 2.5 million euros?

‘I can think of at least ten different studies I’d like to do.  So far I’ve been focusing on typical adolescent behaviour – such as how they handle risk – that applies at all times. It would be interesting to turn things around and look at what makes young people today unique. These days, with social media, they have contacts over the whole world. Should they be given different advice from adults? Social media has a particularly strong impact on young people when they’re shaping their identity, which makes me wonder whether that has an effect on how the brain matures.’  

‘Another interesting research question is how young people make the decisions that determine their path to adulthood. Around half of school children choose a subject to study that isn’t right for them. I want to come up with an intervention that will help them make the right choice. What changes after a course in self-confidence? That’s something we can measure by monitoring young people over a longer period of time and after three years asking them whether they made the right choice. I also want to study how different brain systems interact before these young people make a decision.  Do changes take place in the brain if you start to think differently about yourself?  It could well be that we’ll come to the conclusion that the system has to change because young people are forced to make these decisions too early.’

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Your book Het Puberende brein (The Adolescent Brain, 2008) was an international bestseller and your lectures always have full classrooms. How do you explain that success?

‘There’s an enormous thirst for knowledge about puberty. Many of the reviews said that my book was too academic and not suitable for the general public, but that was a serious underestimation of the reading public. Even young people bought a copy and told me that now they could tell their parents: “It’s not me, it’s my brain.”  And many, many parents say during  my lectures, “What a relief to know my child is normal after all.”’

Your research also has an impact on legislation. New laws on youth detention and alcohol use have raised some of the age limits (detainment centres for young people from 18 to 23 years, and alcohol use from 16 to 18).  What do you think of that?

‘The people preparing the laws did consult my work in their preparatory studies, but I wasn’t personally involved. Organisations often call me about all kinds of plans, but I consciously don’t act as an adviser. I’m a scientist and I prefer not to get overly involved in the social debate. I’m happy that my research has an impact, but I want to continue to do impartial research.’