Image by James Clayton

Forget the zombie apocalypse, the neuro-revolution is coming

Neuroscience is everywhere. Almost every day, there’s a story about a scientific study or a medical breakthrough related to the human brain. People are writing about a coming ‘neuro revolution’, where everything from brain boosting drugs to 100% accurate lie detection machines are in use. It’s the stuff of science fiction made real, and it raises a lot of questions about the future of human society.

But long before neuroscience was making daily news, a few standout young adult novels looked at the possibilities of a new type of human. Brian Caswell’s Cage of Butterflies (1992) is about a group of small children, the Babies, who have an abnormality in their brain anatomy which makes them unable to speak. But the Babies can communicate telepathically as a ‘”shared mind”, both with each other and with people outside their group. Peter Dickinson’s Eva (1988) tells the story of a teenage girl who, after a horrific road accident, is given the body of chimpanzee to replace her human body so that she can continue to live. Among other things, Eva must cope with the memories of the chimpanzee whose body she now inhabits.

But as the neuroscientific discoveries become more amazing in the early 21st century, the young adult novels don’t seem to have kept pace. There are some around that include neuroscientific elements. In Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies, sixteen-year-olds are given plastic surgery to make them ‘pretty’ but the operation also includes putting a lesion on their brain, which makes them easy to control. In Brian Falkner’s Brain Jack people wear neuroheadsets, which are caps with small wires that attach to your head and allow you to control your computer with your thoughts. David Klass’ Dark Angel takes a different approach, using recent discoveries about human brain development to explore questions about the nature of good and evil in a contemporary setting.

We’re in an age where the possibilities of the human brain and technology are moving beyond science fiction into reality. Some of these possibilities have serious implications on how we live our everyday lives, from the way students are taught at school to the way a young person might be categorised and treated, depending on how their brains are configured.

And yet, apart from the few books mentioned, neuroscience is not often featured in young adult fiction. Perhaps it’s just too scary. After all, we can curl up with a good vampire/werewolf/zombie story knowing that these creatures don’t actually exist. But the coming neuro-society is real.

Fiction is a great way for teens to learn how to make their way in and interpret the world. So whether it’s through contemporary YA like Dark Angel or the dystopic futuristic world of Uglies or another hybrid that hasn’t been created yet, I think it’s important to for teen novels to explore how these neuroscience-driven changes might play out.

How can/should the neuro-society be written about in young adult fiction? What other books are out there at the moment using elements of neuroscience in plot, narrative or structure? Why aren’t there more young adult novels looking at the frontiers of neuroscience and what the neuro-society might mean for young adults?

What about writing where teens take the power of their evolving brains and use it to create a better world? Caswell’s Babies did it way back in the early 90s when most of us still thought the human brain stopped growing at puberty.

If we’re going to have a neuro-revolution, let’s bring on some teen neuro-heros!


Maree Kimberley is visiting my blog to try and track down YA novels that deal with or include a neuroscience element for her phd research. Please share any examples you might have.

Also, Maree would like to know why you think it’s not written about that much. Maree’s thesis is looking at the fact that neuroscience is about to revolutionise our lives but ya books being published don’t seem to be addressing it much, and when they do, it’s usually on the edges. Would love to hear your thoughts on this too.

Any comments you have would greatly assist Maree with her research.



16 thoughts on “NEUROSCIENCE IN YA NOVELS – By Maree Kimberley

  1. Maree, you have to read Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. Technically not YA but YA protagonists… oh one of them is named Hiro Protagonist… and not technically neuroscience but kind of mind viruses, and ancient myths… hmmm… anyway it’s a brilliant book and the whole world should read it… twice, because it’s dense, you won’t get it all the first time.

  2. Hi Maree (and Dee!),

    I’d definitely have to add ‘Genesis’ by Bernard Beckett to the list, as well as ‘The Adoration of Jenna Fox’ by Mary E Pearson. I could gush (esp about Genesis) but won’t do that in case you haven’t read them and I give anything away.

    Your phd sounds fascinating, Maree. I wrote a kid’s book about sleep and my research for the dreams component involved a tonne of reading about the neuroscience of the dreaming mind. The most valuable research seemed to at least pay respect to psychology as well as the neuroscience, but I was surprised at how little communication seems to exist between the different disciplines – this is only from the point of view of someone on the outside looking in.

    Why is neuroscience not written about much in YA? In some ways, I think that it is, at least in terms of identity (who am I and, more importantly for YA, who should I become?). But you seem to be asking why we’re not reading about the possibilities of what we could be capable of achieving in the future in terms of neuroscience? Not sure! Maybe it is because writers need to draw on their own experiences in order to imagine beyond that – and we are just at the beginning.

    I do see a movement towards writing in first person, present tense – which has the effect of bringing the reader right into the character’s world – experiencing their thoughts and reactions in real time. Maybe this is the start of a reader truly coming to experience what is means to be someone else – and writers starting to imagine an alternative state of mind.

    Anyway – thanks for getting me thinking Maree, and Dee!

  3. I can loan you my copy, Dee. I think I have Genesis too… it didn’t immediately pop into my mind tho… clearly I read too many books to remember them all.

  4. Thanks Bren, Thalia & Miffyjf, I’ll be putting all these on my to-read list. I think there are a few YA books that touch on aspects of neuroscience but don’t necessarily make it a focus of the novel. For example I’ve just started reading Westerfeld’s Extras, which talks about having your brain changed so you can’t lie, but it’s not really a focus of the novel (so far, anyway, though that might change). I’ve read Being by Kevin Brooks, which dealt with consciousness in a really interesting way, so it’ll be good to see what he does with iBoy. Mind viruses sound pretty cool, too!
    I think there’s so much scope for exploring neuroscience in YA, but I’m hoping I’m not the only one who thinks so!

  5. Thanks Michael, it’s interesting that quite a few of the books that do deal with neuroscience-y things were written before the early 90s, when the major innovations in neuroscience (eg in fMRI) came about.

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