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The adolescent brain

Fundamental insights into the working of the adolescent brain help lecturers and parents to teach adolescents to function better. Professor Eveline Crone studies executive functions – such as planning and behaviour – in the adolescent brain.

From rebellion to lack of interest: the behaviour of adolescents often causes their parents and teachers concern, and their learning performance sometimes suffers greatly. Much of this behaviour can be explained thanks to detailed brain research. Eveline Crone and her research group look at the so-called executive functions (such as planning and behaviour), which are expressed in the prefrontal cortex. Crone: ‘We believe that these functions are crucial in learning, sometimes even more important than the ability to remember something. These functions form your toolbox for problem-solving. What we’ve discovered is that these functions take a fairly long time to develop. But the length of the process differs per function. Your working memory, for example, which helps you remember assignments, continues to develop until the age of 20. Your ability to inhibit behaviour in time already develops in early childhood.’

Adolescents can learn from negative feedback

Crone found out a lot about executive functions in the adolescent brain, and about how adolescents react to specific input. One of her most surprising discoveries is that from adolescence onwards, the brain can learn from negative feedback. In this context, positive versus negative means that a specific method for solving a problem worked, while another method didn’t. Crone: ‘Young children learn primarily from positive feedback, they tend to remember what went well. As they grow up, they increasingly learn by testing hypotheses and checking what works best in completing a task. This insight is now frequently used in the field of education.’ Crone guided this study as PhD supervisor to her colleague Sabine Peters.

Crone’s colleague Berna Güroğlu is now moving even deeper into research on feedback. She wants to know whether adolescents learn better from a good friend, a ‘neutral’ person, or someone they don’t like. The results of this study have a very practical application for schools: it can help teachers create optimal groups in situations where students are expected to learn from one another.

Young children learn best from positive feedback, but adolescents can also learn from negative feedback, such as an experiment that didn’t work out. They have a greater capacity for learning through investigation.

You can train your working memory but not your creativity

Crone also discovered that cognitive training is very effective with adolescents: after six weeks of training, the adolescents’ working memory clearly improved. Training is less effective for other processes, such as creativity. ‘We asked our subjects to find unusual uses for objects, such as a brick or a bicycle pump. We discovered that adolescents can complete this task, but their ability to do so doesn’t improve with training. It seems that creativity is something you have to have a predisposition for.’

Finding the best moment to learn

In 2017, Eveline Crone was awarded the Spinoza Prize, the highest scientific award for the Netherlands, to proceed with her work. She was awarded €2.5 million for research, which she can spend as she sees fit. ‘In the coming months we want for example to look at the timing of interventions for teaching children specific skills, such as learning a language.

We know from experience that young children can learn a language very quickly. Now the question is: are there specific periods when the brain is particularly receptive to training working memory or learning to plan? This knowledge can, in turn, have implications for school systems and their timing in offering children certain lesson materials.’ Crone also wants to further investigate the role of social background in learning: do adolescents with a difficult background mature more quickly, or does their background on the contrary slow them down in their learning?

Gaining insight into the period when a child is most receptive to certain learning materials, means that school systems can be improved.

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Braintime is a unique large-scale research project led by Eveline Crone, in which the brain development of nearly 300 adolescents was studied over a longer period of time (from 2011 to 2015). The study focuses on learning, risk-taking behaviour and forming friendships.


Brain and Development Research Centre
Spinoza Prize winner Crone wants to investigate impact of social media
Spinoza laureate Eveline Crone (NWO, page in Dutch)


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