Neuroscience and Young Adult Fiction: A Recipe for Trouble?




young adult fiction, neuroscience, dystopian fiction, speculative fiction

How to Cite

Kimberley, M. (2011). Neuroscience and Young Adult Fiction: A Recipe for Trouble?. M/C Journal, 14(3).
Vol. 14 No. 3 (2011): trouble
Published 2011-06-25

Historically, science and medicine have been a great source of inspiration for fiction writers. Mary Shelley, in the 1831 introduction to her novel Frankenstein said she was been inspired, in part, by discussions about scientific experiments, including those of Darwin and Galvani. Shelley states “perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth” (10). Countless other authors have followed her lead, from H.G. Wells, whose mad scientist Dr Moreau takes a lead from Shelley’s Dr Frankenstein, through to popular contemporary writers of adult fiction, such as Michael Crichton and Kathy Reichs, who have drawn on their scientific and medical backgrounds for their fictional works. Science and medicine themed fiction has also proven popular for younger readers, particularly in dystopian settings. Reichs has extended her writing to include the young adult market with Virals, which combines forensic science with the supernatural. Alison Allen-Grey’s 2009 novel, Lifegame, deals with cloning and organ replacement. Nathan Hobby’s The Fur is based around an environmental disaster where an invasive fungal-fur grows everywhere, including in people’s internal organs. Catherine Jinks’ Piggy in the Middle incorporates genetics and biomedical research into its horror-science fiction plot. Brian Caswell’s young adult novel, Cage of Butterflies uses elements of neuroscience as a plot device. However, although Caswell’s novel found commercial and critical success—it was shortlisted in the 1993 Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Book of the Year Awards Older Readers and was reprinted several times—neuroscience is a field that writers of young adult fiction tend to either ignore or only refer to on the periphery. This paper will explore how neuroscientific and dystopian elements interact in young adult fiction, focusing on the current trend for neuroscientific elements to be something that adolescent characters are subjected to rather than something they can use as a tool of positive change. It will argue that the time is right for a shift in young adult fiction away from a dystopian world view to one where the teenaged characters can become powerful agents of change.

The term “neuroscience” was first coined in the 1960s as a way to hybridise a range of disciplines and sub-disciplines including biophsyics, biology and chemistry (Abi-Rached and Rose). Since then, neuroscience as a field has made huge leaps, particularly in the past two decades with discoveries about the development and growth of the adolescent brain; the dismissal of the nature versus nurture dichotomy; and the acceptance of brain plasticity. Although individual scientists had made discoveries relating to brain plasticity in adult humans as far back as the 1960s, for example, it is less than 10 years since neuroplasticity—the notion that nerve cells in human brains and nervous systems are malleable, and so can be changed or modified by input from the environment—was accepted into mainstream scientific thinking (Doidge). This was a significant change in brain science from the once dominant principle of localisation, which posited that specific brain functions were fixed in a specific area of the brain, and that once damaged, the function associated with a brain area could not improve or recover (Burrell; Kolb and Whishaw; Doidge). Furthermore, up until the late 1990s when neuroscientist Jay Giedd’s studies of adolescent brains showed that the brain’s grey matter, which thickens during childhood, thins during adolescence while the white matter thickens, it was widely accepted the human brain stopped maturing at around the age of twelve (Wallis and Dell). The research of Giedd and others showed that massive changes, including those affecting decision-making abilities, impulse control and skill development, take place in the developing adolescent brain (Carr-Gregg). Thus, within the last fifteen years, two significant discoveries within neuroscience—brain plasticity and the maturation of the adolescent brain­—have had a major impact on the way the brain is viewed and studied.

Brian Caswell’s Cage of Butterflies, was published too early to take advantage of these neuroscientific discoveries. Nevertheless the novel includes some specific details about how the brains of a group of children within the story, the Babies, have been altered by febrile convulsions to create an abnormality in their brain anatomy. The abnormality is discovered by a CAT scan (the novel predates the use of fMRI brain scans). Due to their abnormal brain anatomy, the Babies are unable to communicate verbally but can communicate telepathically as a “shared mind” with others outside their small group. It is unlikely Caswell would have been aware of brain plasticity in the early 1990s, nevertheless, in the narrative, older teens are able to slowly understand the Babies by focusing on their telepathic messages until, over time,  they can understand them without too much difficulty. Thus Caswell has incorporated neuroscientific elements throughout the plot of his novel and provided some neuroscientific explanation for how the Babies communicate.

In recent years, several young adult novels, both speculative and contemporary, have used elements of neuroscience in their narratives; however, these novels tend to put neuroscience on the periphery. Rather than embracing neuroscience as a tool adolescent characters can use for their benefit, as Caswell did, neuroscience is typically something that exists around or is done to the characters; it is an element over which they have no control. These novels are found across several sub-genres of young adult fiction, including science fiction, speculative fiction and contemporary fiction. Most place their narratives in a dystopian world view. The dystopian settings reinforce the idea that the world is a dangerous place to live, and the teenaged characters living in the world of the novels are at the mercy of powerful oppressors. This creates tension within the narrative as the adolescents battle authorities for power. Without the ability to use neuroscientific advantages for their own gain, however, the characters’ power to change their worlds remains in the hands of adult authorities and the teenaged characters ultimately lose the fight to change their world. This lack of agency is evident in several dystopian young adult novels published in recent years, including the Uglies series and to a lesser extent Brain Jack and Dark Angel.

Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series is set in a dystopian future world and uses neuroscientific concepts to both reinforce the power of the ruling regime and give limited agency to the protagonists. In the first book in the series, Uglies, the science supports the narrative where necessary but is always subservient to the action. Westerfeld’s intended the Uglies series to focus on action. Westerfield states “I love a good action sequence, and this series is of full of hoverboard chases, escapes through ancient ruins, and leaps off tall buildings in bungee jackets” (Books).

Nevertheless, the brain’s ability to rewire itself—the neuroscientific concept of brain plasticity—is a central idea within the Uglies series. In book one, the protagonist Tally Youngblood is desperate to turn 16 so she can join her friends and become a Pretty. However, she discovers the operation to become a Pretty involves not just plastic surgery to alter her looks: a lesion is inflicted on the brain, giving each Pretty the equivalent of a frontal lobotomy. In the next book, Pretties, Tally has undergone the procedure and then becomes one of the elite Specials, and in the third instalment she eventually rejects her Special status and returns to her true nature. This latter process, one of the characters explains, is possible because Tally has learnt to rewire her brain, and so undo the Pretty operation and the procedure that made her a Special.

Thus neuroscientific concepts of brain injury and recovery through brain plasticity are prime plot devices. But the narrative offers no explanations for how Tally and some others have the ability to rewire their brains to undo the Pretty operation while most do not. The apparent complexity of the neuroscience is used as a surface plot device rather than as an element that could be explored to add narrative depth. In contrast, the philosophical implications of recent neuroscientific discoveries, rather than the physical, are explored in another recent young adult novel, Dark Angel.

David Klass’ novel, Dark Angel, places recent developments in neuroscience in a contemporary setting to explore the nature of good and evil. It tells the story of 17-year-old Jeff, whose ordinary, small-town life implodes when his older brother, Troy, comes home on parole after serving five years for manslaughter. A school assignment forces Jeff to confront Troy’s complex nature. The science teacher asks his class “where does our growing knowledge of the chemical nature of the brain leave us in terms of... the human soul? When we think, are we really making choices or just following chemical pathways?” (Klass 74). This passage introduces a neuroscientific angle into the plot, and may refer to a case brought before the US Supreme Court in 2005 where the court admitted a brief based on brain scans showing that adolescent brains work differently than adult brains (Madrigal).

The protagonist, Jeff, explores the nature of good and evil through this neuroscientific framework as the story's action unfolds, and examines his relationship with Troy, who is described in all his creepiness and vulnerability. Again through the teacher, Klass incorporates trauma and its impact on the brain from a neuroscientific perspective:

There are psychiatrists and neurologists doing studies on violent lawbreakers...who are finding that these felons share amazingly similar patterns of abusive childhoods, brain injuries, and psychotic symptoms. (Klass 115)

Jeff's story is infused with the fallout of his brother’s violent past and present, yet there is no hint of any trauma in Jeff’s or Troy’s childhoods that could be seen as a cause for Troy’s aberrant behaviour. Thus, although Klass’ novel explores more philosophical aspects of neuroscience, like Westerfeld’s novel, it uses developments in neuroscience as a point of interest. The neuroscience in Dark Angel is not embedded in the story but is a lens through which to view the theme of whether people are born evil or made evil.

Brain Jack and Being are another two recent young adult novels that explore physical and philosophical aspects of modern neuroscience to some extent. Technology and its possible neurological effects on the brain, particularly the adolescent brain, is a field of research popularised by English neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield. Brian Falkner’s 2010 release, Brain Jack, explores this branch of neuroscience with its cautionary tale of a hands-free device—a cap with small wires that attach to your head called the neuro-headset­—that allows you to control your computer with your thoughts. As more and more people use the neuro-headset, the avatar designed to help people learn to use the software develops consciousness and its own moral code, destroying anyone who it considers a threat by frying their brains. Like Dark Angel and Uglies, Brain Jack keeps the neuroscience on the periphery as an element over which the characters have little or no control, and details about how the neuro-headset affects the brain of its wearers, and how the avatar develops consciousness, are not explored. Conversely, Kevin Brooks’ novel Being explores the nature of consciousness outside the field of neuroscience. The protagonist, Robert, goes into hospital for a routine procedure and discovers that instead of internal organs, he has some kind of hardware. On the run from authorities who are after him for reasons he does not understand, Robert tries frantically to reconstruct his earliest memories to give him some clue as to who, or what, he really is: if he does not have normal human body parts, is he human? However, whether or not he has a human brain, and the implications of either answer for his consciousness, is never addressed.

Thus, although the novels discussed above each incorporate neuroscience to some degree, they do so at a cursory level. In the case of Being this is understandable as neuroscience is never explicitly mentioned; rather it is a possible sub-text implied through the theme of consciousness. In Dark Angel, through the teacher as mouthpiece, neuroscience is offered up as a possible explanation for criminal behaviour, which causes the protagonist to question his beliefs and judgements about his brother. However, in Uglies, and to a lesser extent in Brain Jack, neuroscience is glossed over when more detail may have added extra depth and complexity to the novels.

Fast-paced action is a common element in much contemporary young adult fiction, and thus it is possible that Westerfeld and Falkner both chose to sacrifice complexity for the sake of action. In Uglies, it is likely this is the case, given Westerfeld’s love of action sequences and his attention to detail about objects created exclusively for his futuristic world. However, Brain Jack goes into explicit detail about computer hacking. Falkner’s dismissal of the neuroscientific aspects of his plot, which could have added extra interest, most likely stems from his passion for computer science (he studied computer science at university) rather than a distaste for or ignorance of neuroscience. Nevertheless Falkner, Westerfeld, Brooks, and to a lesser extent Klass, have each glossed over a source of potential power that could turn the dystopian worlds of their novels into one where the teenaged protagonists hold the power to make lasting change.

In each of these novels, neuroscientific concepts are generally used to support a bleak or dystopian world view. In Uglies, the characters have two choices: a life as a lobotomised Pretty or a life on the run from the authorities, where discovery and capture is a constant threat. The USA represented in Brain Jack descends into civil war, where those unknowingly enslaved by the avatar’s consciousness fight against those who refuse to wear the neuro-headsets. The protagonist in Being lives in hiding from the secret authorities who seek to capture and destroy him. Even in Dark Angel, the neuroscience is not a source of comfort or support for the protagonist, whose life, and that of his family, falls apart as a consequence of his older brother’s criminal actions. It is only in the 1990s novel, Cage of Butterflies, that characters use a neuroscientific advantage to improve their situation.

The Babies in Caswell’s Cage of Butterflies are initially victims of their brain abnormality; however, with the help of the teenaged characters, along with two adult characters, they are able to use their “condition” to help create a new life for themselves. Telepathically communicating through their “shared mind,” the Babies coordinate their efforts with the others to escape from the research scientists who threaten their survival. In this way, what starts as a neurological disability is turned into an advantage. Cage of Butterflies illustrates how a young adult novel can incorporate neuroscience into its narrative in a way that offers the young adults agency to make positive changes in their lives. Furthermore, with recent neuroscientific discoveries showing that adolescence is a vital time for brain development and growth, there is potential for neuroscience to be explored as an agent of positive change in a new wave of young adult fiction, one that adopts a non-dystopian (if not optimistic) world view.

Dystopian young adult fiction has been enjoying enormous popularity in western publishing in the past few years with series such as Chaos Walking, Hunger Games and Maze Runner trilogies topping bestseller lists. Dystopian fiction’s appeal to young adult audiences, states Westerfeld, is because:

Teenagers’ lives are constantly defined by rules, and in response they construct their identities through necessary confrontations with authority, large and small. Imagining a world in which those authorities must be destroyed by any means necessary is one way of expanding that game. ("Teenage Wastelands")

Teenagers often find themselves in trouble, and are almost as often like to cause trouble. Placing them in a fictional dystopian world gives them room to fight authority; too often, however, the young adult protagonists are never able to completely escape the world the adults impose upon them. For example, the epilogue of James Dashner’s The Maze Runner tells the reader the surviving group have not escaped the makers of the maze, and their apparent rescuers are part of the same group of adult authorities. Caswell’s neurologically evolved Babies, along with their high IQ teenage counterparts, however, provide a model for how young protagonists can take advantage of neuroscientific discoveries to cause trouble for hostile authorities in their fictional worlds.

The power of the brain harnessed by adolescents, alongside their hormonal changes, is by its nature a recipe for trouble: it has the potential to give young people an agency and power adults may fear. In the everyday, lived world, neuroscientific tools are always in the hands of adults; however, there needs to be no such constraint in a fictional world. The superior ability of adolescents to grow the white matter of their brains, for example, could give rise to a range of fictional scenarios where the adolescents could use their brain power to brainwash adults in authority. A teenage neurosurgeon might not work well in a contemporary setting but could be credible in a speculative fiction setting. The number of possible scenarios is endless. More importantly, however, it offers a relatively unexplored avenue for teenaged characters to have agency and power in their fictional worlds.

Westerfeld may be right in his assertion that the current popularity of dystopian fiction for young adults is a reaction to the highly monitored and controlled world in which they live ("Teenage Wastelands"). However, an alternative world view, one where the adolescents take control and defeat the adults, is just as valid. Such a scenario has been explored in Cory Doctorow’s For the Win, where marginalised and exploited gamers from Singapore and China band together with an American to form a global union and defeat their oppressors. Doctorow uses online gaming skills, a field of expertise where youth are considered superior to adults, to give his characters power over adults in their world. Similarly, the amazing changes that take place in the adolescent brain are a natural advantage that teenaged characters could utilise, particularly in speculative fiction, to gain power over adults. To imbue adolescent characters with such power has the potential to move young adult fiction beyond the confines of the dystopian novel and open new narrative pathways.   

The 2011 Bologna Children’s Book Fair supports the view that western-based publishing companies will be looking for more dystopian young adult fiction for the next year or two (Roback). However, within a few years, it is possible that the popularity of zombies, werewolves and vampires—and their dominance of fictional dystopian worlds—will pass or, at least change in their representations. The “next big thing” in young adult fiction could be neuroscience. Moreover, neuroscientific concepts could be incorporated into the standard zombie/vampire/werewolf trope to create yet another hybrid to explore: a zombie virus that mutates to give a new breed of undead creature superior intelligence, for example; or a new cross-breed of werewolf that gives humans the advantages of the canine brain with none of the disadvantages. The capacity and complexity of the human brain is enormous, and thus it offers enormous potential to create exciting young adult fiction that explores new territory, giving the teenaged reader a sense of their own power and natural advantages. In turn, this is bound to give them infinite potential to create fictional trouble.  


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Author Biography

Maree Kimberley

Maree Kimberley has a Bachelor of Creative Industries and a Master of Arts (Research), both from QUT, and is currently a PhD candidate in Creative Writing, Creative Industries at QUT. Her main areas of interest are young adult fiction and neuroscience.