When someone hurts your feelings, you might feel the urge to hurt them back. Even though it can feel satisfying in the moment, it is not always the wisest decision in the long term. So why do we still do it? And what happens in the brain during revenge?

‘Revenge is sweet’ is a phrase heard so often that we might even have started taking it literally: a German study showed that participants judged stories of revengeful acts more leniently when they had a sweet taste in their mouths than when the taste was neutral. However, the long-term consequences of retaliatory behavior are often less sweet than the metaphor suggests. Responding aggressively after frustration or provocation, also called reactive aggression, has been related to negative outcomes such as risk for depression and reduced life satisfaction later in life. So why do people still retaliate? And what does neuroscience say about this?

Impulse control
Luckily, I am not the first to ask this question. Multiple studies have investigated retaliatory or reactive aggression by looking at aggressive reaction following social rejection. I am currently involved in a research project examining the development of aggression regulation and behavioral control: we measure retaliatory aggression with a behavioral task in which participants receive peer feedback on a personal profile. Subsequently, they can aim a loud noise blast at the peer who gave the feedback, which can be used as a measure of retaliatory aggression. Even though the task is performed in a laboratory setting, both children and adults sent a louder noise blast to peers who were negative about their profile than to peers who gave positive or neutral feedback. So what is going on at the neural level? Previous research found that people who show more activation in a specific area of the brain that has been associated with control mechanisms (the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) show less retaliatory aggression when they receive negative feedback. This regulation mechanism was visible not only in adults but also already in children of 7-8 years old! So, one part of our answer to the question why people retaliate might be that some individuals are less good at controlling their impulses, leading to immediate aggressive responses.

The rewarding experience of revenge
However, even though we may not always want to admit it, it can feel very good to get payback for something that has been done to you. For example, if your sister steals some fries from your plate, you might want to take something from her plate when she’s not looking. Or if a friend posts an ugly photo of you in a group chat, it can feel very satisfying to get revenge by posting one of him that’s even uglier. Thus, it seems that provocation does not only lead to frustration and negative feelings, but can also result in positive affect when we have the opportunity to retaliate. In fact, the more rejected or provoked you feel (or the uglier the photo), the more rewarding it is to retaliate. This rewarding experience of revenge has also been found in the brain: a specific study on these positive side effects of aggression showed that when there was more activation in the reward circuit of the brain (the ventral striatum) after provocation, people also responded more aggressively to that provocation. Interestingly, this relation was only found when participants were provoked first, so it seems that this effect is specific to revenge and not just for aggression in general. In other words, we can indeed take the phrase ‘revenge is sweet’ literally!

All in all, neuroscience research can help us explain why taking revenge is often one of our first impulses in response to provocation. The positive feeling of reward or justice makes it difficult to suppress this first impulse. Also, even though most of us know that in the long term revenge is not always the best choice, some people are better at regulating those impulses than others. That said, I’m off now to search for that worst photo to post in the group chat…

by Nina van Santvoort, Research Intern Resist Project

Over the course of the last decades, a paradigm shift has occurred in how antisocial behavior is generally perceived. Whilst before a social-cultural approach was used to explain antisocial behavior, it is now viewed in a more holistic light, focusing on social, and genetic and biological components. Dissecting how all these different factors combine and interact in the development of antisocial behavior, however, remains a challenge. Looking through a lens of biology, it has been establish that brain development plays a role in the predisposition to engage in externalizing , aggressive, and antisocial behaviors. But by taking a biological view on antisocial behavior, caution is warranted that the pendulum of antisocial behavior is not slowly swinging us back to Lombroso; heading toward a fatalistic adage that people who show an inclination to antisocial behavior were simply ‘born this way’.
The environment can shape one’s biological infrastructure. Through a process called epigenetics, the environment can affect a person’s genetic make-up and alter biological and neural structures, which in turn increases the chance of antisocial development. Be that as it may, the environment can also act as a protective factor, decreasing this chance. To understand the development of antisocial behavior it is therefore crucial to view antisocial behavior, and its biological correlates, holistically and as malleable, alterable phenomena.

As Told by Genes
Genes are short segments of DNA. The genome contains all these genetic parts and forms the “blueprint” for our features and characteristics. The human genome is similar in every human being, but not completely the same; genetic polymorphisms (variants) determine the diversity between different individuals due to distinct DNA sequence variations. Studies investigating the role of genotypes in the development of antisocial behavior suggest that particular genes may contribute to the development and maintenance of antisocial behavior. This means that, having a particular gene, or set of genes, could increase a person’s susceptibility to develop antisocial behavior. Take for instance, the MAOA gene. MAOA is an enzyme that breaks down serotonin. It appears that different levels of MAOA, which are caused by different genetic polymorphisms, either increase or decrease the risk of aggressive behavior. It was shown that low levels of MAOA are associated with later antisocial behavior. Moreover, a study by Guo et al. (2008) demonstrated that a very specific MAOA gene variant called VNTR, which causes extremely low levels of MAOA, even results in twice as much violence in adolescence and young adulthood compared to control subjects without the VNTR variant.

Serotonin has an inhibitory function on the brain and is involved in the regulation of impulsive and aggressive behavior. Like MAOA, other genetic variations also appear to play a role in the serotonergic contribution to aggression and antisocial behavior. For example, the short allele version of 5-HTTLPR has been linked to low serotonin production. Studies indeed show that antisocial groups demonstrate significantly lower levels of serotonin metabolite 5HTT compared to non-antisocial controls. These findings may be interpreted as such that low serotonin is associated with antisocial behavior as it results in dysfunctional emotion regulation and impaired impulse control. Interestingly though, since antisocial behavior is very heterogeneous and manifests itself differently in different individuals, it is believed distinct variations in genes that result in altered neurotransmitter systems underlie distinct subtypes of antisocial behavior. Referring back to the previous example, a divergent pattern of 5-HTTLPR genes has been found based on the level of callous-unemotional traits: whilst the short allele has often been implicated in increased impulsivity, a link was shown between the long allele and youths with conduct disorder high on callous-unemotional traits. These findings emphasize the significance of understanding different etiologies, neural bases, and behavioral indices.

However, attention must be paid to the interpretation of these findings. Meta-analyses show that the association between specific genes independently and aggression are too weak to be utilized as predictors of violent behavior. As we will see, the genetic contribution to antisocial behavior must be seen in a much wider context.

A Plastic Genome
Thus, genetic influences on antisocial behavior are not that simple. Firstly, the magnitude of the expression of genes depend heavily on many more factors, including a ton of environmental ones as well. As an example, let’s go back to MAOA; the gene that has been linked to antisocial behavior. What if this genetic risk factor were to be combined with adverse social-environmental factors? A longitudinal study by Caspi and Moffitt (2002) showed that children who were maltreated and simultaneously showed low levels of MAOA were more likely engage in antisocial behavior than maltreated children with high levels of MAOA. However, children who were not maltreated but did have low levels of MAOA showed no higher inclination to antisocial behavior. That is, MAOA alone cannot predict antisocial behavior. Only in tandem with adverse environmental factors does there appear to be an association. The results of the study indicate that individual genes are indeed important, but more so in a particular context.
Moreover, heritability estimates are statistical descriptions of variances based on group level findings. Meaning, when genetic risks are calculated for an entire group, it cannot be used as a predictor for the risk of one specific individual’s propensity to antisocial behavior. Lastly, whilst gene studies can inform about what proportion of antisocial is explained by genetic factors, twin and adoption studies show that genetic factors can only explain 50% of the variance in antisocial behavior. This means that the other 50% must be attributed to environmental factors.

Hence, heritability does not imply genetic determinism. Studies investigating the effects of genetic, biological, and environmental factors within the development of antisocial behavior indicate that all factors interact in predisposing a person to antisocial behavior. This means that, although certain genetic and biological make-ups may naturally lead to a higher propensity to antisocial behavior, it also works the other way around: the environment can actually alter gene expression through DNA modification. Thus, whilst we tend to conceive genes as fixed and static, they are very malleable.
The process of the environment modifying genetic expression is called epigenetics. Generally, epigenetics plays a central role in the adaptation of humans to their environments. For the development of antisocial behavior, this means that experiences in the environment may modify the gene expression, so that it could result in the generation of new neural trajectories that can increase someone’s susceptibility to develop antisocial behavior. A multitude of research studies suggest that external factors such as early post-natal and childhood adversities interfere with neural development, affecting biochemical pathways. Take for example, maternal care. Research suggests that maternal responsiveness in early childhood could have a big effect of later outcomes through the mechanisms of epigenetics. A study by Provenzi et al. (2019) demonstrated that appropriate maternal caregiving affected DNA methylation in infants. Maternal touch appeared to be an environmental proxy that could protect the child by affecting genes such as SCL6A4 (the serotonin transporter gene of formerly discussed polymorphism 5-HTTLPR).

Risk and Protective Factors
These modifications of gene expression can be placed in a much wider context of how different kinds of factors may give rise to the development of antisocial behavior or protect against it. It is clear that the social environment is a vital agent in shaping the brain toward or away from antisocial behavior. The developmental stage during which youth are exposed to certain risk factors that could result in the onset of antisocial behavior is important in order to identify corresponding protective factors that may prevent its onset. Family factors such as birth complications, inconsistent responsiveness from parents, and parental substance abuse matter the most in early childhood. During adolescence it is important that the person has access to healthy peer relationships and is provided with the appropriate responsiveness from the school and the community. In fact, lower affiliation with delinquent peers even resulted in a heightened resilience to the exposure to family adversity. But also nutrition may offset the development of antisocial behavior amongst youth. For example, a nutritional intervention rich in omega-3 has been linked to reduced levels of aggression. Results showed a long-and short-term decline of aggression in a sample of youth aged 8-16 after 3 months of omega-3 supplementation. This was also the case for youth characterized by callous-unemotional traits. However, the exact mechanisms on why this works are yet to be investigated.

Genetic and biological research can contribute to the understanding of the development of antisocial behavior. Yet, what ought to be prevented is that it creates a defeatist attitude. Research demonstrates that one should not turn a blind eye to the social and environmental factors affecting a developmental predisposition to antisocial behavior. Taking into account social factors will also prevent ethical quandaries stemming from an inaccurate and defeatist ‘biology equals destiny’ attitude.
Though, a pre-emptive strike can be made with the further investigation of the biological and genetic correlates of antisocial behavior and the development of neuro-treatment. Still, the social environment is key in understanding, preventing, and altering the trajectory toward antisocial behavior. Given the heterogeneity of youths affected by antisocial behavior, it is crucial to understand the influence of particular social-environmental effects per developmental stage on the specific neurochemical and neurobiological correlates that tend to typify certain subgroups of youths with antisocial behavior. Understanding the specificities of antisocial behavior, and paying attention to the differentiated genetic, biological, social-environmental effects on its development, will also aid in the development of targeted intervention efforts that may increase resilience and decrease vulnerability of youth prone to maladaptive antisocial development.

by Nina van Santvoort, Research Intern Resist Project

Adopted into a loving home in Oklahoma, Jeffrey Landrigan was provided a safe and nurturing environment. Yet, at 11 years of age Jeffrey was already arrested for burglary. Nine years later, Jeffrey was sentenced for second-degree murder of his childhood friend. What dark shadows cast over Jeffrey, resulting in his rapid path to violence?

On any given day, you may encounter such news stories about violent acts committed by youth. An extraordinary portion of these violent acts, however, can be accounted for by only small number of youths. What produces this type of behavior? Why do some youths commit violent acts whilst others do not? Research now shows that the roots of pervasive and continuous externalizing behavior amongst youth may be partially explained by underlying neurodevelopmental markers. Jeffrey met his biological father, who killed twice, in prison. Given Jeffrey’s adoption, may there be a biological contribution to his antisocial behavior? Research shows that a various set of brain regions, if dysfunctional, could predispose a person to antisocial behavior. Abnormal responsivity in the amygdala as triggered by provoking cues, and the failure of the frontal regions to exert regulatory control appear to play a vital role in the display of aggressive acts.

The Brain’s Homeland Security System
The amygdala, which stems from the Greek word amýgdalo, is an almond-shaped structure in the medial temporal lobes of the brain. When the sensory areas of the brain sense something in the environment, the amygdala receives a rough copy of whatever it is that the brain is sensing and subsequently checks whether it is threatening or not. Consequently, it may send out a flight or fight response. Additionally, the amygdala is involved in the ability to recognize when someone else is in a state of fear. Yet, for this almond-like structure in the brain to appropriately support emotional learning, this burglar alarm cannot run all by itself.

Hence, whilst the visual or auditory sensory system is further processing a signal, and thus attaining more detail, another note is send up to the frontal cortex. As the name implies, the frontal cortex is positioned at the very front of the brain. One of the tasks of the frontal cortex is help to coordinate your behavior. It makes sure that you behave appropriately in the current context. If the situation is safe, it can tell the amygdala to calm down; it can, so to speak, turn off the brain’s homeland security system and stop the flight or fight response originating from the amygdala. The connections between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex (PFC) are believed to form the foundation of emotional regulation behaviors. In maturity, the amygdala has very strong bi-directional connections with the PFC that by and large facilitate coordination of its inputs; often for the purposes of regulating its signals.

A brainy bias to antisocial behavior
So, why is it that adolescents characterized by conduct problems find it particularly difficult to regulate and control their emotional responses? Neuroimaging research on the neurobiology of antisocial behavior discovered that the parts of the brain that are normally involved in emotion regulation, such as the amygdala and areas of the prefrontal cortex, are atypical in these youths. An imbalance between these two regions could impair emotion regulation. If functioning properly, the frontal cortex keeps a lid on the amygdala, making sure that the emotions do not boil over. Reduced frontal functioning results in a lack of control over the amygdala, resulting in extreme emotions such as anger, rage and fear; increasing the likelihood of one behaving aggressively.

Recently, researchers have investigated the functional coupling between the amygdala and the frontal cortex. It was shown that the strength of the connectivity between the amygdala and the frontal regions of the brain could predict successful emotion regulation. This suggests a top-down regulatory effect of the prefrontal cortex on the amygdala. Extending this to antisocial behavior, fMRI results of a study investigating the connectivity in a sample of violent offenders found a significant decrease in amygdala-frontal cortex connectivity and increased connectivity between the amygdala and other limbic areas. The opposite was found for non-offender controls. Complementary, Passamonti and colleagues (2012) found that the uncinate fascicle, which is a bundle of white matter tracts that connect the amygdala to the frontal areas (particularly the orbitofrontal cortex), shows structural abnormalities in adolescents with conduct disorder, further indicating atypical communication between the areas. 

Taken together, research demonstrates that abnormalities in communication between the amygdala and the frontal cortex could disrupt emotion regulation, and may therefore predispose an individual to antisocial behavior.

Heterogeneity in conduct disorder
Whilst advances in brain imaging technology have thus allowed neuroscientists and neuropsychologists to look under the hood of aggressive juveniles, the (neural) roadmap to antisocial behavior and aggressive acts may be different per individual.

Different forms of antisocial behavior seem to coincide with different neural bases. For example, a body of imaging research demonstrates that youths with conduct disorder high on callous-unemotional traits are typified by low reactivity to negative emotional cues, as signified by low amygdala activity. These youths also show an attenuated response in the pain-processing network of the brain, including the insula, anterior cingulate cortex, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex. This may imply an impairment in the ability to recognize the emotional states of others. Compared to youths without conduct disorder or youths with conduct disorder but without callous-unemotional traits, they also tend to engage in proactive (pre-planned and intentional) aggression significantly more often.

Conversely, youths diagnosed with conduct disorder yet low in callous-unemotional traits, showed high emotional reactivity to these negative emotional cues and also scored high on reactive aggression as compared to youths characterized by callous-unemotionality and controls. The increase in the use of reactive aggression is associated with increased activity in the limbic areas of the brain, where the amygdala is positioned, and decreased activation in the prefrontal cortex. Thus, it seems that unique etiological factors contribute to the heterogeneous pathogeneses of conduct disorder and antisocial behavior.

The findings regarding the communication between the amygdala and frontal cortex in youths with conduct disorder suggest some errors in the Homeland Security System of the brain: the alarm may be harder to turn off, or might not be sensitive enough, with different atypical neural processes underlying each impairment. Important to realize, however, is that the antisocial brain is a complex puzzle consisting of different brain areas and multiple dysfunctional neural networks. By putting together the pieces, one must refrain from glossing over these complexities.

Crucially, although there are biological components that may negatively affect the neurological development of emotion regulation abilities and could consequently predispose a person to antisocial behavior, it is not the full story. The connection between the amygdala and the PFC takes a long time to develop. Because of the prolonged plasticity of the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, the link between the areas is also mediated by early experiences and its association with later emotional functioning and must hence be viewed in a developmental context. The brain is sculpted by one’s experiences. Understanding conduct disorder holistically, meaning in light of genetic, biological, social, and environmental etiological contributors is crucial for understanding the developmental trajectory to antisocial behavior. Furthermore, it may aid in the possibility to shape treatment to target the specific neural atypicality that fits the antisocial individual. Detecting developmental markers that predispose an individual to antisocial behavior augurs well for early intervention: stepping in during a phase of life where antisocial traits are more malleable may prevent many adversities in a young person’s future whilst additionally protecting the society around them.

The RESIST project of Erasmus University’s SYNC lab aims to better understand individual trajectories that lead to antisocial behavior, investigating this from a psychological- and neurodevelopmental perspective.


Het SYNC lab heeft op basis van recente onderzoeken naar het functioneren van jongeren voor en tijdens de coronacrisis een e-magazine gepubliceerd. Dit e-magazine staat boordevol kennis over kwetsbaarheden en kansen voor jongeren tijdens de coronacrisis. Op basis van deze kennis hebben wij tips geformuleerd waarmee professionals, opvoeders, en beleidsmakers aan de slag kunnen. Meer weten? Lees hier verder:

Health care organizations, governments, and policymakers are facing social and economic challenges as the global population has been aging very rapidly the past few years. With aging comes the risk of developing health issues, like neurodegenerative disorders. In 2015, 46 million individuals worldwide were suffering from dementia. By 2050, it is expected that this number will increase to 131.5 million, mainly due to the growth of the number of older adults. So what are the determinants of healthy cognitive aging and, by consequence, how can age-associated neurodegenerative diseases like dementia be attenuated? One of the many approaches that might bring us a step closer, is the work on the relationship between bilingualism and aging.

Enhanced executive functions among bilinguals
In the past two decades studies have accumulated information that has provided comprehensive, yet inconsistent, evidence regarding the advanced cognitive control among healthy bilingual individuals. However despite the ongoing debate, those studies that have found a bilingualism effect point to it positively contributing to cognitive processes like attentional conflict, inhibitory control, and goal maintenance. These studies are not limited to older adults, but target bilingual speakers from different ages. The origin of the bilingual advantage presumably follows the experience of monitoring and switching between two or more languages on a regular basis. For example, researchers have found reduced switching costs and enhanced flexibility in mental shifting in non-verbal executive tasks for bilinguals compared to monolinguals, that form the support for the idea that managing and frequently switching between two languages affects the executive control system.

The ability to control and switch between multiple languages involves the recruitment of various components of the executive system. It follows that lifelong experience of bilingualism or multilingualism may modify the neural representation and/or brain activity of regions and circuits associated with executive control. Executive control processes are supported by a frontoparietal network in the brain. Among children and young adults, neuroimaging studies on bilingualism in connection to nonlinguistic cognitive control revealed that, compared to their monolingual peers, bilinguals show a more distributed network of brain activation, including the involvement of brain regions associated with language control. Comparable results are seen in adult bilinguals, who show similar and distinct task-related functional networks when engaged in executive control processes. The functional difference in relation to executive functioning is characterized by the additional activation of areas primarily recruited during linguistic processes (i.e. left inferior frontal gyrus (IFC), anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), left inferior parietal lobule (IPL), and left basal ganglia) by bilinguals but not monolinguals.

Brain reserve vs. cognitive reserve
Could the enhanced executive control processes play a key role in the neuroprotective effects of bilingualism on cognitive decline via preserved and stronger frontoparietal pathways? Well, it is known that even in the presence of pathological brain changes, which are expected to result in dysfunctional behavior, some individuals exhibit significantly fewer and less severe symptoms or even no clinical symptoms at all. The epidemiological evidence suggests that these so-called protective factors act as a ‘reserve’, and can explain the inter-individual variability in symptom onset and severity. There is a distinction between brain reserve and cognitive reserve, two concepts which in the past have been used interchangeably. Stern defines the former as the individual differences in the brain itself (e.g. volume, number of neurons or synapses) that allow some people to cope better than others with brain pathology. Although predominantly hard-wired, brain anatomy can be influenced by life experience via several processes including neurogenesis, up-regulating receptors that promote neural plasticity, and resistance to apoptosis. By contrast to brain reserve, cognitive reserve postulates that individual differences in mental processing allow some people to cope better than others with brain pathology. Stern further subdivides cognitive reserve in neural reserve, i.e. the heterogeneity in brain networks (e.g. efficiency, capacity, or flexibility), which might explain why some people are better capable of coping with the effects of neuropathology, and neural compensation. The latter is defined as the heterogeneity in the ability to compensate for the disrupted brain networks by utilizing brain regions and networks which, in the absence of brain pathology, are normally not associated with that particular mental process.

The potential neuroprotective effects of bilingualism
The process of aging is characterized by complex and heterogenous alterations across the brain and in cognitive performance. In a MRI-study from 2015, the authors examined global and local differences in volume and cortical thickness of regions associated with aging and dementia (i.e. temporal pole, entorhinal cortex, and hippocampus) in healthy monolingual and bilingual seniors. Monolinguals and bilinguals did not differ on measures of global gray matter volume, nor in their rate of age-related decline in relation to white or gray matter in one of the lobar regions. However, strikingly, bilinguals showed significantly greater white matter volume in the frontal lobe, and marginally greater white matter volume in the temporal lobe than monolinguals. This correlated with better executive functioning, as measured with a Stroop task. The study also exhibited that cortical thickness within the temporal lobe decreases as a function of age in monolinguals, but not in bilinguals. Collectively, these findings demonstrate that bilingualism may have  neuroprotective effects, in terms of brain reserve, providing evidence for the assumption that over time the bilingual advantage of executive control might result in stronger and longer preserved pathways in the brain. At the same time, another study found evidence pointing more towards bilingualism as cognitive reserve. The authors examined white matter integrity and gray matter volume between healthy older monolinguals and bilinguals, and found that bilinguals showed more neural signs of an aging brain regions involved in memory processes compared to the monolinguals. Crucially, on a behavioral level the bilinguals did not underperform in relation to the monolinguals despite suffering greater brain atrophy. This led the authors to assume that bilinguals are flexible in using other intact (frontal) pathways, such as those involved in executive control as a way to compensate for the affected areas.

The protective effects of bilingualism upon cognitive decline have been found to reach further than healthy aging, extending to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). In one of the first studies it was revealed that (lifelong) experience of bilingualism does not lower the incidence or prevalence of dementia, but that the beneficial outcome of bilingualism is rather embedded in a delay in the onset of the symptoms.  Within a sample of non-specified demented individuals, the age at onset of clinical symptoms reported by family members, was on average 4 years later than for bilingual individuals compared to monolingual individuals. The decline rates, however, did not differ between the two groups, which suggests a shift in onset only and not altered progression. These findings have led to the thought that that bilinguals deal with greater brain atrophy than monolinguals but still manage to cognitively perform on a similar level. As expected, researchers have found that bilingual AD patients showed greater atrophy in the medial temporal lobe (a well-known brain region affected by AD) than monolinguals, supporting the view that benefits of bilingualism do not directly operate by protecting against structural disruptions of AD related regions, but rather act on maintenance of cognition (via intact pathways) in the presence of brain burden. As already mentioned before, bilingualism may exert an influence on the preserved executive control pathways in the brain in both healthy and pathological aging. A recent study on metabolic connectivity in monolingual and bilingual AD patients revealed more severe left hemispheric hypometabolism among bilinguals than monolinguals (e.g. IPL, IFG, parrahippocampal gyrus, insula, putamen, and cerebellum). Interestingly, the bilinguals did show increased metabolic activity in the executive control (specifically frontoparietal networks) and default mode network compared to the monolinguals. This implies that the neuroprotective effect of bilingualism indeed involves compensatory strategies associated with the intact executive control pathways, making it possible to have a mismatch between brain damage and cognitive performance.

The precise mechanisms underlying the neuroprotective effect remain unclear. It could be that the bilingual advantage is primarily the result of neural compensation, via frontoparietal connections, when other brain regions are disrupted. At the same time, there is also evidence for better preservation of structural and functional integrity in bilinguals compared to monolinguals. It would be interesting to know whether these different protective effects of bilingualism (brain vs. cognitive reserve) are associated with individual variability in type of bilingualism language use, proficiency, or amount of switching between first and second language. Till then the bilingual brain will continue to be both fascinating and mysterious.

This blog is a shortened version of an unpublished writing assignment by Green (2016) as part of a master programme at Utrecht University.

In our research on brain development adolescents are typically involved as participants, but rarely asked for their expert opinion. It’s our vision that science becomes better when conducted together with societal partners, including through youth panels and co-creation. The current pandemic presents a challenge to achieve such co-creation, as live get togethers are no longer desirable. Instead of postponing and waiting for better times, we decided to think of innovative ways to start co-creation in times of COVID-19. We designed a virtual format for youth expert panel sessions. In this blog I’d like to share some lessons we learned while setting up and conducting our first virtual youth expert panel. We hope to inspire other researchers to include youth experts by sharing our experiences and the lessons we learned.

What better topic to choose for virtual session than Social Media use? Currently, I am setting up a study on longitudinal associations between social media use, wellbeing and brain structure across adolescence. Social media usage among young generations is a much-debated topic. What exactly happens in brain development remains to be an unanswered question. Popular media often states that the effects of social media could be detrimental for the developing brain, but it might as well be enhancing social life and brain development.  Involving the subjective experience of the target audience in the process of constructing the study could enhance the quality of the research. To this end, we were eager to learn experiences and motivations from the real social media experts: adolescents themselves

Wanted: Social Media Experts!
First things first: how to find adolescents who are willing to share their expertise with us? For our panel session, we aimed to recruit nine to twelve 13-16-year-old adolescents, which would allow us to have three to four parallel small group discussions. We decided to recruit adolescents through our own social media platforms (twitter, Linkedin, Facebook and Instagram) by using an informative and appealing flyer (see figure). Although in general we received enthusiastic responses to the flyer, the response rate remained rather low. In the end, we received 6 registrations.

Lessons learned:
The most important lesson learned here is that we do not have enough adolescents within our personal social network, highlighting the need for a broader platform to recruit adolescents for co-creation. Currently, the SYNC lab is setting up the YoungXperts platform to gather and enthuse youth for citizen science. Other ways to increase registration rates might be:

* financial reimbursement (in addition to/instead of gadgets)
* shorter time frame (the panel session was scheduled for three hours).
* our registration form asked email addressed to contact adolescents, but we learned that phone numbers might be a better alternative to keep contact


Designing the virtual format
Before actually asking adolescents to share their experiences, we thought about the aims of our panel session and developed appropriate virtual formats. Our aims were three folded:  

1) share our knowledge on brain development during adolescence and the way the brain responds to social feedback using an interactive workshop on adolescent brain development;
2) learn about their subjective experiences and motivations regarding social media use, by means of a brainstorm session;
3) use adolescents’ expert perspective on our current measures of social media using co-evaluation of our current questionnaires

The entire panel session took place in the videoconferencing software Zoom, but the format is also suitable for different software such as MS Teams.

Lessons learned:
We learned that zoom might not be the best solution, as none of the adolescents had prior experience with this software program (they used MS Teams more regularly). Moreover, some of the utilities of Zoom (e.g., annotating on shared screens) did not work with Chromebook, whereas a lot of (Dutch) adolescents work with Chromebook at school.

Part 1: Interactive workshop on adolescent brain development
To share our knowledge on adolescent brain development, we included an interactive workshop at the start of the virtual panel session. The aims of this part are twofold: to 1) bring our knowledge to society and 2) provide a common ground for the brainstorm and co-creation sessions. The interactive workshop consisted of a 30-minute laymen lecture including our latest scientific findings combined with relevant videos. To make it more interactive, we included several poll questions, in which we asked for adolescents’ opinion or thoughts.

Lessons learned:
Despite discussing (difficult) neuroscientific findings, adolescents reacted very positively to the workshop. They really felt like they learned something new and valuable. Moreover, it set the stage for the following parts of the virtual panel session. It is advantageous to make use of videoconferencing software that incorporates the poll option (i.e., Zoom and MS Teams), so the presenter can stay on the same screen and the participants simply follow the session via one single program.

Part 2: Brainstorm session on subjective experiences
For the next part of the session, we broke up in smaller groups to brainstorm about five predefined statements. We had two groups that included a moderator and two adolescents. The statements were aimed at the subjective experiences of social media use of adolescents, e.g. “Why is social media important for you?”.  First, we asked the young experts to think about the topic for about 3 minutes, to generate ideas. During this time, they could write down ideas on a virtual Bulletin board. We used Padlet but there are several web applications available (e.g. Miro).  After the group generated the initial ideas, we discussed them in the next 5 minutes and finished by summing up the most important aspect in the last 2 minutes. After the brainstorm hour, we had a plenary evaluation of the outcomes. 


Lessons learned:
We originally planned to have brainstorm in groups of 4 adolescents and one moderator. However, we learned that two or three adolescents per group might work better to share personal experiences. Moreover, participants suggested that the brainstorm statements could be send prior to the panel session, providing some additional time to think about the topics. Last, we included a plenary evaluation part, but we learned that this did not add much to the panel session. We discussed that it might be more informative to summarize the main outcomes of the session in an infographic and publish this on the soon to be launched YoungXperts platform

Part 3: Co-evaluation of social media questionnaires
The third and final part of the virtual panel session was the co-evaluation of our current social media measures. The data of our social media project were collected in the past four years and we were interested in how adolescents perceived the current questionnaires. We used a plenary format where we first showed the different items of the questionnaires and asked adolescents for overall feedback. Next, we used the poll option as a voting system, to assess whether the adolescents found the question a good or bad item. In total, this section lasted 30 minutes in which we discussed four different questionnaires of ± 10 items each.

Lessons learned:
We noticed that the adolescents found it rather difficult to provide suggestions on the spot. This might also reflect a time- or fatigue effect, as we were already discussing the topic for more than two hours. The format we used for co-evaluation (plenary discussion and voting) was not as suitable as we hoped. In the future we would use smaller groups and provide some additional time to work on the questions independently. A valuable lesson learned is to limit the time online, for example by combining an interactive workshop with either a brainstorm or a co-creation session (not both). Despite these difficulties, we received exceptionally useful information on our questionnaires!

Virtual co-creation: the first of many!
As this was our first virtual young expert panel session, we were curious to learn how the adolescents experienced the session. The results of our evaluation form showed that all of our panel members felt taken seriously during the session (final grade 10 out of 10!). They felt that they could provide valuable input (9.13) and that their opinion mattered (9.10). Moreover, the session lived up to their expectations (8.83). All of our panel members indicated to be interested in follow up panel sessions, thereby proving our first YoungXpert members!


All in all, we experienced our virtual youth expert panel session very positively! We received enthusiastic responses towards the interactive workshop. We acquired valuable and otherwise-overseen experiences on social media use in adolescence. Also, we learned about the pros and cons of our current social media questionnaires. Specifically, the adolescents explained us why some items might not be representative, something we can take into account during the analyses. If we had used a co-creation approach prior to data collection we would have had an even better measure of social media use. These experiences highlight, once again, the importance of incorporating the young experts at an early stage of the research.

If you are thinking about incorporating a citizen science approach to your research, but feel hindered by the current pandemic situation, I hope that we have inspired you to do so nonetheless! With all the restrictions adolescents are facing nowadays and the loss of control over important decisions, it is more important than ever to give them a stage. Use their expertise, learn from the experts – it will improve your research significantly! 

What do you think about when you hear the term “living lab”? A laboratory walking around town? A place in the city where citizens can see scientist at work? Although the term living lab is used more and more often when talking about co-creation and citizen science – it is still somewhat unknow what exactly a living lab is.

As a postdoctoral researcher in the SYNC-lab, I became more and more familiar with the living lab approach. My research focuses on fostering the prosocial development of adolescents. I aim to include the views and opinions of adolescents, through youth-panel activities and intervention co-creation. These aims align very well with a living lab approach. With this blog, I would therefore like to tell you a bit more about what a living lab is and outline why a living lab approach may benefit both researchers and adolescents.

What is a living lab approach?

According to the Rathenau Institute, living labs are characterized by co-creation in a ‘real word’ experimental setting. Co-creation means that citizens (i.e., adolescents) and/or societal organizations (i.e., schools, clinical institutions, city councils) actively participate in the research and innovation process. All participating individuals of a living lab activity contribute to the research process based on their own knowledge, experience and skills.

Living lab research does not take place under the strictly controlled conditions of a classic laboratory, but is conducted in ‘the wild’. This is important, because living labs aim to deal with complex societal issues and those are difficult to mimic in a classic laboratory. Living lab activities are, however, not the only research activities that take place in ‘the wild’. In the social sciences, research is frequently conducted in real world settings. In my opinion, another important characteristic of the living lab approach is, therefore, that research participants are not merely viewed as passive study objects, but as active collaborators. That is, their voices are important to take into account during all phases of the research process. Through a living lab approach, the voices, needs, ideas and creative solutions of adolescents can be included throughout the research question formulation phase, the design phase (i.e., co-creation of questionnaires, experimental manipulations and interventions), and the outreach phase.

Another common ‘misconception’ of a living lab seems to be that they are expected to be situated at specific physical locations. However, for research with adolescents, living lab activities can be organized at all the places where one might find adolescents ‘in the wild’. In fact, the SYNC living lab activities that we organized in the past months have been at diverse places such as schools, community centers, social media, and zoom.

What are the advantages of a living lab approach for researchers?

Embracing a living lab approach has multiple advantages for researchers. Let me summarize some of these:

Reaching a diverse population.
In the social sciences, adolescents from high SES backgrounds are overrepresented in study samples. Living lab activities, such as youth panels, enable researchers to reach a more diverse population. In SYNC living-lab activities, we were able to include participants from lower educational backgrounds, who are frequently underrepresented in our study samples.

Triangulating across research methods.
Adding living lab approaches to the research ‘tool kit’, enables researchers to triangulate across measurement approaches. By combining theories, methods or and observers, triangulation can help to ensure that fundamental biases arising from the use of a single method or a single observer are overcome. As such, the weaknesses of one research method (i.e., relatively low ecological validity in experimental research) can be compensated with the strengths of another research method (i.e., adding youth-panels in order to discuss with adolescents how experimental findings might translate to the real-world). 

Better fit of research projects to the needs of adolescents.
By including the voice of adolescents to different phases of the research cycle, projects may become more relevant to adolescents. When adolescents are included as stakeholders from the start of the research project, chances may be higher that the research project’s findings will actually be used by adolescents. Adolescents can also actively help with outreach activities. These advantages of living lab approaches may be especially relevant for intervention research. Interventions that aim to influence adolescent’s behavior often do not align with their enhanced desire to feel respected. Through co-creation of interventions, interventions may therefore eventually become more successful.

Inclusion of creative ideas.
Adolescents are able to think ‘outside the box’ and frequently come up with creative solutions for problems. Through living lab activities, researchers can include these creative ideas into their research projects. In a research sync-lab activity, adolescents for example designed an animated instruction video, which seemed to be more engaging than the traditional written instructions that we frequently use in our work.

What are the advantages of a living lab approach for adolescents?

Participation in living lab activities may also have advantages for adolescents. Adolescents may for example:

Experience that their opinion is valued.
During adolescence, young people develop a fundamental need to contribute to society. Inviting adolescents to play a part in the research process, could identify meaningful contributions that have been neglected or underappreciated by existing dominant paradigms of adolescent development. Through living lab activities, adolescents may experience that their opinions are valued. When these activities take place in real-world contexts, important people in the lives of adolescents (i.e., teachers) may subsequently also invite adolescents more frequently to share their ideas.

Experience the relevance of science.
Many adolescents who participate in our living lab activities, are surprised to see that researchers can be ‘young people’. In their minds, researchers are old, white man, who sit in their ‘ivory towers’. By engaging in living lab activities, adolescents can experience the relevance of science: “science works for everyone!”. This aligns very well with the goals and ambitions of the Dutch National Science Agenda.

Improve community conditions and policy.
Living lab activities may inspire adolescents to advocate for change. A specific example of a living lab activity is youth-led participatory action research, where adolescents identify issues they want to improve, conduct research to understand these issues and come up with possible solutions, and advocate for changes based on research evidence. Youth-led participatory action research subsequently increases the power of marginalized groups to improve community conditions via iterative cycles of research and action. Experimental research shows that participation in action research is associated with positive outcomes, such as increases in sociopolitical and participatory behavior.

So, in my opinion, living labs bring the best for both worlds: for us researchers as well as for the youth that we are working with.  In the upcoming months, we aim to further develop the SYNC living lab initiative: www.YoungXperts.nl. We also aim to study the benefits of participation in living lab activities, and we will continue to use living lab approaches to improve interventions that aim to foster the prosocial development of adolescents. In the meantime, I advise my fellow researchers to give living lab approaches a try. Aside from all potential benefits, it is also a lot of fun to discuss your work with adolescents! Please feel welcome to share your experiences with us. 

By Dorien Huijser

A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon this highly relatable image on Twitter. When it comes to open science, researchers aiming for reproducible research are most likely to steal the show, for example by sharing data, code and materials. In the meantime, research data management, i.e., how you deal with your data, often goes relatively unnoticed. However, it is my humble (yet perhaps biased) opinion that without good research data management, open science would not lead to much durable scientific progress at all.

One of the goals of open science is to make science more transparent. There are many ways to do so, but one of the most prominent ones is to share research data, allowing others to check scientific results or to perform new research. But when are data – and accompanying materials – useful?

FAIR enough?
At the moment, there are many degrees of practicing open science. Whereas some researchers simply share nothing, others throw their data somewhere on the internet and yet another small portion uses hardcore curation. The latter is the ultimate goal: data and code should be Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable (FAIR). Despite this relatively simple sounding acronym, actually meeting the requirements of FAIR in practice turns out to be quite difficult.

No one should expect researchers to be able to do everything in the context of scientific research. This is where research supporters come in. Data stewards know a lot about research data management, because that is what they do! For example, they know how to deal with privacy sensitive data and how to anonymize them. They know how you can make sure to never lose previous versions of your files ever again. Perhaps most important for open science however: they know what is needed to make data FAIR. Although this all seems like boring stuff – which it sometimes is – it is crucial on the long term.


The crucial cat concept
Take metadata. If you share only your data, no one will be able to use them. Why? Because just the data alone do not tell you anything about the kind of data, the participants, what was measured and how. Others, including your future self, may not have a clue what the variable “var1” means in column X of your dataset. Metadata is here to provide this context. If we think of data as a picture of a cat, metadata is the date the picture was taken, the location, which camera made the picture and the file size, among others. You can take this very far at different levels, but I will not bore you with that. My point is that this requires consideration, because metadata are a prerequisite for the reuse of your data.

Forever accessible
Another example concerns persistent identifiers. You may think: why can’t I just send my data to whomever interested? Or: Why can’t I just put my data on my personal website? However, this can lead to problems. Even though (no doubt!) your intentions are good, what if you leave your job and cannot access your 2008 data anymore? Or if you decide to use a different domain name for your website? In the latter case, all of the links to the data you put in your scientific article or that were sent to colleagues become invalid. Persistent identifiers are here to save the day, and research supporters play a crucial role in pointing researchers at these issues (you’re welcome).

By now, I hope that you agree with me that research data management is an important prerequisite for pushing open science forward. A solid basis of research data management will not only make science transparent, but also sustainable and reproducible in the long run. Luckily, more and more institutions see this and hire data stewards to help researchers achieve this. The science show must go on, but that is not possible without research data management as the secret star of the show.


Recently, postdoc Michelle Achterberg was invited by radio station SCIENCE071 to talk about her recent preprintHome lockdown: Bloom or Boom? Perceived stress as mediator for longitudinal effects of the COVID-19 lockdown on wellbeing of parents and children“. You can listen to the interview here.

The current generation of adolescents has to stay at home with parents most of the time and follow online lessons instead of going to school. They are forced to stay physically distant from peers during a period of life in which they crave friends and social interactions the most. Fortunately, teens today have the chance to turn to technology to stay socially connected. Why are teens in particular suffering from the radical change in social environment? And what solutions does the use of social media offer?

From a biological perspective, turning to digital social spaces makes sense. Especially in the absence of social interactions elsewhere. Adolescents (between 10 and 24 years) go through a uniquely sensitive phase of development in which almost every activity is focused on fitting in. Changes in the brain and the hormonal system shape the process of breaking free from primary caregivers and form the strong desire to feel accepted and belong to peer groups. In the past decennia, neuroscientists have been discovering that the typical adolescent brain is actually equipped to process social experiences as extremely valuable. By comparing the brains of adolescents with those of children and adults, we measure that being judged by peers is eliciting a stronger reaction in teens. When adolescents just look at pictures of facial expressions in a lab setting, their brains get more active.

Researchers have been keeping track of the growth of neural connections between specific brain areas while teenagers get older. What they find: brain areas that are involved in social behaviour grow relatively fast in comparison to other parts of the brain. This specific pattern of brain development highly influences adolescents’ behaviour and goals: they naturally become more motivated to engage in social activities with peers.

The natural urge to spend time with peers is much needed at a young age. Socially orienting yourself independent from parents trains you to be an autonomous social adult. On the downside however, feeling lonely or socially isolated during this formative period of life is shown to be uniquely damaging for the development of structures in the brain. It may even trigger psychological problems and depression. Being active on social media may help teens to overcome a sense of social isolation.

Scholars from various research disciplines emphasise that social media is indeed fitting in adolescents’ developmental processes. The routine of chatting, updating, and sharing via social media platforms gives the levers to manage self-presentation, learning to express oneself and to develop one’s own identity. Researchers that measure brain activity patterns even show us that teens experience the social stimuli hosted by social media as evenly gratifying as when they engage in offline interaction.

Digital spaces can be a lifesaver on a much broader scale. LGBTQ youths for instance, who often lack confidence to express themselves in their physical surroundings or struggle to belong, turn to safe spaces on the internet. When I was exploring my sexual orientation as a teenager, social media was my biggest support. The LGBTQ-corner of the internet encouraged me to eliminate doubts and allowed me to feel more comfortable about my sexuality in online and offline surroundings.

Over the last decades, the online world as well as safe spaces for LGBTQ identifying youths have been expanding drastically. LGBTQ teens today take to the video-sharing app TikTok to share feelings and struggles or to seek for recognition in content uploaded by others. On such a platform, they can encounter like-minded peers whom they may not easily find in their physical environment. While there is still a lack of positively reflected queer representation in the mainstream media, various social media platforms offer a place for self-discovery, social connection and support.

Although the impact of enforced physical distancing may not be completely comparable with the struggles that marginalized groups of youths might face, it does show what the online social environment is capable of. Social media has the potential to stretch a safety net below teenagers in a formative period of social development. Digital spaces provide a crucial tool to connect and support each other while physically distant or when lacking a sense of normality elsewhere.

At the same time, however, some concerned voices claim that constantly being online might be rather unfavourable for teenagers well-being. Considering the average of six to seven hours spend on digital devices on a weekday (reported by Dutch adolescents during corona times), these concerns are not at all surprising. Even adolescents themselves are questioning whether they spend too much time behind their screens. Among Dutch adolescents, 60% report to feel uncomfortable with the number of hours they are online.

The concerns seem legitimate. The extend to which technology can assist in adolescents’ social development has its boundaries. Socializing with a screen in between is essentially different from its real-life counterpart, resulting in inevitable negative consequences on the flip side of the coin. Photo-sharing platforms such as Instagram entail an uncanny great emphasis on quantifiability of social endorsement. Many teens suffer from the pressure to portray an unrealistic self-image on their online profiles, or to achieve social standards that may be displayed on social media.

Of course, text-based communicating contains less social cues and an asynchrony of interaction. This might make social experiences in the online world challenging and less fulfilling. Algorithms continue to ensure you mainly encounter what you already like, imposing anyone who uses social media with the limitations of engaging in your online social bubble. Face-to-face social interactions with peers and the spontaneity of socializing in physic social events or in school surroundings are still necessities.

It is, on the one hand, more important than ever to focus psychological and brain research on the opportunities of the online world to assist in youths’ social development. On the other hand, although youths experience positive social support in many online settings, we still need more research into the limitations of social media’s role in the development of teens. We need experimental studies to find out to what extend social media is sufficient to fulfil adolescents’ social needs. How should we approach social media to support a healthy and responsible social environment? For both adolescents during physical distancing, but also for adolescents who already find less connection in their offline surroundings, these questions are of vital importance.