Research on Neural Systems may Help Explain Adolescents’ Sensitivity to Social Feedback

Teenagers Are Very Sensitive To Social Environments – Now We Can See It In Their Brains As Well.

By Margarita Azmitia 

As they move into adolescence and peers become more salient than family, boys and girls become more sensitive to feedback about their peer acceptance and popularity. Especially in early adolescence, friendships and peer relationships are always changing, which can make adolescents worry about being evaluated negatively and excluded from peer groups and activities. Concerns about or experiences of rejection and exclusion are correlated with mood shifts, anxiety, and depression. While considerable research has focused on the social, relational, and cultural mechanisms that underlie adolescents’ heightened sensitivity to social feedback and its association with well being, research on how the brain might contribute to these developmental phenomena is still fairly rare. Fortunately, the 2013 special issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science focuses on cutting edge research on the teenage brain.

Leah Somerville’s paper, The teenage brain: Sensitivity to social evaluation, provides an exciting look at how research on neural systems enriches our understanding of adolescents’ social evaluative world. Somerville proposes that neural systems that change structurally and functionally during adolescence, and in particular, the amygdala, striatum, and the medial pre-frontal cortex, may heighten adolescents’ sensitivity to and concern about social evaluative feedback. Pubertal hormones that affect neurotransmitters in these areas of the brain also contribute to social evaluative sensitivity, especially when the feedback comes from peers. Empirical support for Somerville’s proposal comes from three tasks that monitor adolescents’ brain activity over time: (1) a social-feedback task in which adolescents are led to believe that an unfamiliar peer is using their picture to rate their likeability (2) a chat room in which a confederate peer selects them or another adolescent to chat with, and (3) an online ball-passing game in which over time, it appears as if their peer partner stopped passing them the ball. In all three tasks, adolescents show higher activation in social areas of the brain than children and adults.

Somerville provides several examples of research that has revealed an association between brain processes and psychological phenomenon. For example, in one study, telling participants that a peer would sporadically watch them on a video feed led adolescents to experience the emotionality, self-consciousness, and embarrassment associated with the imaginary audience and increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, the brain structure that integrates emotional and social information. Child and adult participants were significantly less likely to show these psychological, emotional and neural reactions. Somerville concludes with a reminder that identifying the neural mechanisms of adolescents’ social sensitivity is not just relevant for theory and research. Socially-evaluative experiences are a key part of the daily lives of all adolescents, and understanding adolescents’ reactions to real or imagined social feedback may go a long way towards improving their lives.

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