Transcendent thinking in teens: A pathway to enhanced brain connectivity and well-being, study suggests

New research from the Center for Affective Neuroscience, Development, Learning and Education (CANDLE) at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education suggests that engaging in transcendent thinking — a kind of abstract, big-picture reasoning about the world and one’s place in it — can significantly impact the development of teenagers’ brains, with positive implications for their personal and social well-being in young adulthood. This type of thinking was found to predict increased connectivity between major brain networks over time.

The new findings appear in the journal Scientific Reports.

For over a century, transcendent thinking has been recognized as a critical developmental milestone during adolescence, a period marked by rapid growth in cognitive, emotional, and psychosocial dimensions, as well as brain development. Despite the acknowledged importance of this kind of thinking in shaping a young person’s ability to interpret and emotionally respond to the social world, its effects on brain development have remained unexplored until now.


The new study sought to fill this gap by examining how adolescents’ propensity for transcendent thinking influences the evolution of brain network connectivity and, consequently, their future psychological and social well-being.

This longitudinal research, unfolding over five years, included 65 adolescents aged 14 to 18 from diverse, low-income urban backgrounds, specifically focusing on youth of color. Initially, participants engaged in in-depth, private interviews, reacting to a series of mini-documentaries about real-life adolescents in various circumstances.

To assess transcendent thinking, the research team employed a qualitative coding system for participants’ interview responses. Each participant’s reaction to the documentaries was transcribed and analyzed for elements of transcendent construals. These construals were categorized based on their reflection of three primary dimensions:


Systems-Level Analyses or Moral Judgments: This dimension included responses where participants went beyond the surface details to question or analyze how and why systems (social, political, educational, etc.) operate as they do. For example, a participant might reflect on the fairness or justice of a situation, such as immigration policies or socioeconomic disparities, demonstrating an effort to understand complex systems’ workings and their implications.

Broad Implications, Morals, and Personal Values: Responses that discussed the broader implications of a story, derived personal lessons or values, or reflected on moral emotions and perspectives fell under this category. Participants showing concern for humanity, contemplating the future, or expressing happiness for human virtues demonstrated transcendent thinking by connecting personal emotions and values with larger societal and ethical considerations.

Character Analyses: This aspect involved analyzing the qualities of character, mind, or perspective of the individuals featured in the documentaries. Rather than merely recounting the actions or outcomes, participants engaging in transcendent thinking considered the protagonists’ motivations, resilience, and ethical dilemmas, often reflecting on what these qualities revealed about human nature and society at large.


Following the interviews, participants underwent resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans. These scans were used to assess the connectivity between significant brain networks, particularly the executive control network (ECN) and the default mode network (DMN), both implicated in managing goal-directed thinking and enabling reflection beyond the immediate context, respectively. The initial scans provided a baseline, and participants returned for a second scan approximately two years later to assess changes in brain network connectivity.

The researchers found that adolescents who more frequently engaged in transcendent thinking showed a significant increase in the interconnectivity of these networks over a two-year period.

To explore the long-term implications of transcendent thinking and its associated neural development, the study also included surveys on identity development and life satisfaction conducted in later stages of adolescence and young adulthood. These surveys aimed to capture participants’ reflections on their values, beliefs, relationships, and overall satisfaction with life, providing a comprehensive view of their psychosocial well-being.


The researchers found that the increased connectivity between the DMN and ECN, fostered by transcendent thinking, was associated with more positive psychosocial outcomes in young adulthood. Participants who exhibited higher levels of transcendent thinking in adolescence reported greater satisfaction with their sense of self, their relationships, and their academic or work environments in their early twenties.

“For at least a century, developmental theorists have described adolescents’ emerging abilities for transcendent social thinking, known also as abstract thinking, as a hallmark developmental stage,” the researchers wrote. “Here, we demonstrate that adolescents’ proclivity to engage with such thinking predicts key, large-scale brain networks’ increasing interconnectivity over time and that this neural development is, in turn, associated with personal and social well-being in young adulthood. Importantly, in our socioeconomically and ethnically diverse urban sample, IQ and demographics did not explain the findings.”

The study sheds light on the potential impact of transcendent thinking on the adolescent brain and suggests it might have lasting benefits. But the study, like all research, includes limitations, including the modest sample size and the focus on a specific demographic. The researchers advocate for broader, more diverse studies to validate and expand upon these findings.


While the study demonstrates a strong association between transcendent thinking, brain network connectivity, and well-being, it stops short of proving causation. It remains possible that other factors, not accounted for in the study, could drive these changes. Experimental designs or interventions aimed at enhancing transcendent thinking could help to establish causality more firmly.

“It is hard to imagine a human context in which the capacity to engage in transcendent thinking would not confer benefits, assuming that we collectively aim for wellness and an ethical society capable of interrogating structures and systems, and of innovation,” the researchers concldued. “By middle adolescence, youth are oriented to, and even agentically dedicated to, engaging in such thinking. As a result, they can count among society’s most idealistic and committed citizens.”

“The disposition to build complex, values-based inferences about the personal, social and ethical implications of the situations we encounter, and to become curious about the reasoning behind complex societal systems, is uniquely human. The proclivity to think about issues and beliefs that transcend proximal goals and the current context is the basis for adult-like moral values, identity development, civic participation and a sense of purpose.”


“Our study suggests that as mid-adolescents engage in transcendent thinking, trying on their newly expanding capacities for making meaning, they coordinate neural networks involved in effortful thinking and internal reflection. This spontaneous, active coordination across development may contribute to the growth of both their brains and their minds, lifting them over the threshold to productive young adulthood.”

The study, “Diverse adolescents’ transcendent thinking predicts young adult psychosocial outcomes via brain network development,” was authored by Rebecca J. M. Gotlieb, Xiao-Fei Yang, and Mary Helen Immordino-Yang.

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