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Discuss adolescence as a distinct life stage in terms of cognitive and socioemotional development.

Discuss adolescence as a distinct life stage in terms of cognitive and socioemotional development.

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards (Ireland) Competition by Gemma Gordon. Originally submitted for Psychology at Trinity College, University of Dublin, with lecturer Michael Gormley in the category of Medical Sciences
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards (Ireland) Competition by Gemma Gordon. Originally submitted for Psychology at Trinity College, University of Dublin, with lecturer Michael Gormley in the category of Medical Sciences

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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10/27/2013

 
Word count: 2252
Discuss adolescence as a distinct life stage in terms of cognitive andsocioemotional development.
 
Long before the founding of psychology, philosophical, theological and educationaltheories contributed to a rudimentary understanding of the human transition fromchild to adult. However, it was not merited with the status of a life stage, andremained a hazy area of mystification and ambivalence.The academic discipline of adolescent psychology originated in the twentieth century, stemming from the prolificwork of Granville Stanley Hall (Berzonsky, 2000). This eminent American psychologist proffered a recapitulation view of human development and specificallyacknowledged the significance of adolescence. He hailed the entry into puberty asone’s ‘rebirth’ from an egocentric, primitive animal to a civilised sophisticatedthinker, concerned with social responsibility, empathy and altruism (Hall, 1904). Sucha momentous transition, as expounded by Hall, has since been less dramaticallydefined and several corresponding myths have been debunked; nonetheless it retainsits significance as a distinct and inevitable epoch preceding adulthood. The cognitiveand socioemotional developmental milestones achieved in this period from eleven totwenty years of age are areas of past and current exploration. I will illuminate somekey topics and theories within this spectrum of adolescent development and argue for the distinction of adolescence as a definitive stage of life.The developmental changes in the brain provide the biological foundation for cognitive changes that characterise adolescence. The recent surge in study of theadolescent brain has confirmed that it differs from a child’s, yet has not peaked to anadult standard of maturation (Kuhn and Franklin, 2006). In relation to brain structure,numerous areas exhibit growth and refinement, which have been discovered byfunctional magnetic resonance image (fMRI) brain scans (Keating, 2007). The corpuscallosum thickens, which strengthens the capacity to process information. The prefrontal cortex, the highest level of the frontal lobes that is involved in reasoning,decision-making and self-control continues to mature into the emerging adult years, asfar as twenty-five years of age or later. A crucial discovery is that advances in theamygdala, the area of the limbic system that is the seat of emotional responses, isachieved quite rapidly, and significantly earlier than the prefrontal cortex (Spear,2007). This underdeveloped prefrontal cortex struggles to control intense emotionstemming from the amygdala, thus contributing to stereotypical unruly adolescent behaviour. (Dahl, 2004) encapsulates this uneven development of emotion and2
 
cognition as the activation of strong ‘turbo-charged’ feelings with a relativelyunskilled set of cognitive abilities to modulate strong emotions and motivations.The implications of this finding suggest a solid biological basis contributing to therisk-taking actions so frequently associated with teenagers. Ernst, Pine and Harding(2006) formulated the prominent neurobiological triadic model to account for notedadolescent high-risk behaviour such as unsafe sex, driving at speed and dabbling withharmful drugs. The theory is expounded by stating that the propensity duringadolescence for reward/novelty seeking in the face of potential harm may beexplained by a powerful reward system; the nucleus accumbens, a weak harm-avoidant system; the amygdala, and an inefficient monitoring system; the prefrontalcortex. In this context, the amygdala is evaluated as inadequately functioning to produce fearful responses, yet the aforementioned fMRI evidence, which illustratesstrong activity in heightening all emotional responses, fails to support this. Given thatresearch of the adolescent brain is still in its infancy, I think further evidence on the precise functioning of the amygdala may shed light on this enigma.The implications of these neurobiological reasons for irresponsible and hazardous behaviour provoke questions pertaining to legal implications for adolescent criminal punishment. Steinberg and Scott (2003) argue that immature cognitive and emotionalcapacities for self-control and decision-making render adolescents less responsible for their actions than adults. I think that such views reinforce the significance of adolescence as a distinct life stage, and demand consideration and further study toimprove on it’s legal standing as an unofficial limbo between child and adulthood.In conjunction with brain structure, exploring neurological advances in the adolescentyears is requisite to understanding cognitive development. Until the final years of thetwentieth century, scientists believed that the brain ceased to generate new neuronsafter the early childhood years. Recent findings infer that for the most part after infancy, the magnitude of brain remodelling and plasticity is relatively modest, withone notable exception: adolescence (Sun and Bartke, 2007). The remarkable ability of the brain to repair itself prevails, although this high level of plasticity diminishessteadily as adolescence progresses. Yen and Wong (2007) examined nearly seventychildren ranging from seven to fifteen years of age and found that later occurrence of  brain injury correlated with less effective performance on various cognitive tasks. The3

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