Cognitive Development in Early Adulthood

Early adulthood can be a very stressful, impressionable, and critical point in a person’s life. Generally just removed from school, people get their first taste of the real world. Outside pressure to get a job, further education, or furthering career opportunities are parts of everyday life that young adults have not fully adapted to, and this can cause developmental problems moving into full-blown adulthood. On the other hand, cognitive development in these years generally shows increased efficiency. Therefore, as adults, they are expected to make the ethical and moral decisions that come with the title.

This part in the developmental period, responsible for the full completion of the growth of the frontal lobe, is arguably the most important period, and transition in a person’s life, and can radically alter the overall outcome for the good or for the bad. Cognitive development is literally a person’s ability to perceive, understand, reflect, and react appropriately to the world around them. Due to the implications of early adulthood, cognitive development in this period can be the most integral in a person’s life due to emotional development, an increase in ethical and moral decision making, as well as the development of interpersonal skills that are necessary for social growth, as well as integration into modern society. This idea can be applied to various different models and approaches, all coming to the same overall conclusion.

In adults, cognitive growth can be stimulated by major events in ones life–some major examples are the birth of a child, an increase in necessary responsibility, as well as the interaction between nature and nurture. Taken from the webpage “Cognitive Function in Early Adulthood”, the source also cites psychotherapist Erik Erikson to decipher how the brain develops during early adulthood. It is Erikson’s belief that this can be explained as a number of stages of crisis, with resolution necessary to move on to the next stage in ones life. Erikson lists these stages as “trust vs mistrust, autonomy vs doubt, initiative vs guilt, competence vs inferiority, indentity vs role confusion, intimacy vs isolation, generativity vs stagnation, and ego-integrity despair”. Again, the resolution of each internal conflict is necessary to move on to the next conflict. The resolutions of these internal conflicts can be a great gauge for the extent of cognitive development (Bold, 1999). An inability to move from one conflict to each other, on the other hand, can leave one developmentally deficient, immature, or unable to connect with peers.

Generally, the growth of the frontal lobe of ones brain is completed in their early twenties, and thus, during the later stages of early adulthood. To parallel this idea, development of both intelligence, as well as fluid intelligence, are also integral during this period of development. Though fluid intelligence and intelligence are similar, they refer to two totally different parts of human development. Intelligence is simply the “capacity for goal-directed behavior”, and was defined in 1982 by Dr. Robert Sternberg and Dr. William Salter (Bold, 1999). This is a broad and simple concept to understand as a whole. During early adulthood human beings are supposed to be able to develop the skills to prioritize tasks–thereby meeting deadlines, expounding on time management skills, and reaching the epitome of human efficiency.

The other type of intelligence that hits its developmental peak in early adulthood, called fluid intelligence, refers to something much more specific, and somewhat different altogether. Fluid intelligence is defined as “fast and abstract reasoning”–while it declines moving into adulthood, it is at its peak in the early adult time period. The aforementioned article cites “nonverbal abilities, nonverbal puzzle solving, and novel logic” as examples of fluid intelligence. As well as narrowing this peak period to in between 20 and 30, it also narrows the people in which this is seen most often–mathematicians, poets, and scientists (Bold, 1999).

Going back to the brain’s development, as mentioned above, development of the frontal lobe finishes around the age of twenty. Specifically part of the cerebral cortex, these areas of the brain are especially important with regards to judgment and planning. If this indeed finishes growing in the twenties, than the full development of the brain is very important in early adulthood. With regards to intelligence and fluid intelligence, these two skills cannot properly develop without the foundation of judgment that comes with maturity of the brain’s cerebral cortex. Judgment and planning themselves are obviously necessary for developing the ability to be goal-oriented, as well as for abstract reasoning, giving an application to cognitive development in early adulthood (Bold, 1999).

According to an abstract published by Ethel Cantu, the development of what is called “postformal thought” develops cognitively during early adulthood. The idea of postformal thought is very important to a persons cognitive development, especially with regards to developing moral and ethical standards that may stay with them their entire lives. The idea of postformal thought acknowledges that adults will recognize that some problems do not have a definitive right or wrong answer–instead, adults develop the skill to use previous experiences to gauge and solve issues. Cantu describes this as “relativistic thinking”, as opposed to “pure logic” (Cantu, 2013).

Postformal thought involves less broad overall implications, and Cantu names the differences during, and after the “adult” shift to postformal thought. She describes postformal thought as more “open, adaptive, realistic”, as it relies on both logic, as well as previous experiences to draw conclusions and make decisions. Perhaps the largest difference between before and after a person experiences a shift to postformal thought is the heightened ability to deal with the proverbial curveball–or, better phrased, the ability to deal with change, contradiction, and “inconsistency” (Cantu, 2013).

The same article describes a model called Schaie’s Stages of Adult Development that is on a broader scale, though still applicable for the purposes of this paper. The article cites five different stages of cognitive development in a person’s life: Acquisitive, Achieving, Responsible, Executive, and Reintegrative. The first stage, in childhood and adolescence development, called the Acquisitive stage, is when important information about life is gained. The other stages, such as Responsible and Executive, deal with the challenges of middle-adulthood, such as family and world concerns. The last, in late adulthood, Reintegrative, focuses on “tasks of personal meaning” (Cantu, 2013).

For the purposes of this paper, the second Achieving step is the most important, as it deals with development in early adulthood, as well as the priorities that go along with this train of thought. The Achieving stage of development deals directly with the application of acquired knowledge and life experiences to every day life. This point really summarizes the entire aim of the essay–that it is during early adult development that interpersonal skills are applied, and either accepted or rejected. Of course, this also places an extreme amount of importance on the developmental stage before it–the Acquisitive stage, where the brain’s primary function is in fact information gathering (Cantu, 2013).

It is very interesting to note that while it has been made very clear that the brain reaches its full potential in early adulthood, it seems the body coincides in many ways. For example, senses become sharper, and are the best they will ever be in a lifetime. In addition, “psycho-motor” abilities, or hand-eye coordination, are also at its peak. It is again interesting that stress plays a very large part in the cognitive development of early adults (Early Adulthood, 2013).

Studies have shown that long-term stressors can impede the brains cognitive development to deal with stress at all. The brain’s threshold for stress can diminish, before everything becomes, in essence, a stressor. These stressors can even be positive events, such as marriages, a new job, or even a graduation. Positive or negative, if the brain is exposed to these stressors for a long period of time, it can manifest itself in physical consequences. Heavy stress for a long period of time can actually weaken the immune system, and make a person more susceptible to catching diseases. This proves the link between the mind and the body with regards to cognitive development (Early Adulthood, 2013).

Early adulthood is perhaps the most important time in a persons’ life with regards to cognitive development because of the full development of both intelligence and fluid intelligence, the final development of the frontal lobe of the brain, as well as being integral in deciding how to deal with stress in future situations. Therefore, early adulthood is a pivotal point in development that can be damaged, with plenty of consequences as a whole.

Works Cited

“Cognitive Functioning in Early Adulthood.” Cognitive Functioning in Early Adulthood. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 May 2013. <>.

“Early Adulthood: Physical & Cognitive Development.” Early Adulthood: Physical & Cognitive Development. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 May 2013. <                       2314/Feldman3Notes/EarlyAdultPhysCogFeldman3Notes.htm>.

Feldman, Robert S. “Physical and Cognitive Development in Early Adulthood.” N.p., n.d. Web. 10 May 2013.             <>.