The Neuroscience of Dystopia

Try getting a teenager to read a quiet, reflective book and you’ll probably get the response, “It’s boring.”   Today’s teens prefer stories that keep the adrenalin pumping, whether action packed thrillers or dark dramas.  Explanations for the rise in popularity of dystopian books range from theories of escapism to comfort.  It has been suggested that teens are drawn to these stories because their own worlds are falling apart.

And books that portray a broken future or the darkness deflect from our own real world problems.  

But young people don’t need to turn to a book of fiction to discover the dark side.  History is rife with events as atrocious as anything found in fiction.  And the media flashes in our faces tales of horror and violence daily.  So what is it about a book?  A book provides a safe format to explore the world and a side of darkness that has been with us since Adam and Eve.  And unlike real life, in most works of fiction there is a satisfying resolution.  A book has an ending.  You can step away from it.  We cannot step away from our lives and we don’t know the ending. So in that respect young people may be looking for comfort or escape in dystopian books.  But they are seeking drama in its fullest too.  And that can be better explained by neuroscience than by sociological or psychological theories.

Just before adolescence the human brain undergoes  an enormous growth of axons and dendrites. During adolescence these bushy neurons are pruned (by genetics and environmental stimuli) as a normal part of the maturation process, forming a roadmap of neural pathways that dictate behavior.

Pathways exposed to more stimulation will thrive and grow, while those that are fed less will weaken.

In pathways designed with self-regulating feedback loops, like the dopamine reward system or the stress response system, excess stimulation sets off a neurobiological cascade.  Initially, the stimulation causes the neurons in the pathway to release a large amount of neurotransmitters.  In order for the message to be sent, these neurotransmitters must cross a synapse, a small space between the branches of the neurons, and find a receptor to which they can bind.  If a high level of stimulation continues, the body attempts to rebalance the input and turn down the volume of the signal, by decreasing the receptor sites. This down-regulation of receptors is responsible for the tolerance that develops in feedback loops.  It now takes a greater release of neurotransmitters to obtain the same effect.

The dopamine reward circuitry is particularly active during adolescence.  

Experiences that are novel, exciting and edgy fill the adolescent with a dopamine derived feeling of euphoria.  Because of this increased sensitivity to dopamine, teenagers are drawn to stimulation like bears to honey.  And in today’s world there is no lack of stimulation.  Technology and innovation have thrust us into a context in which information is being processed by the senses faster than the speed of light, setting off a neurobiological cascade, the consequences of which are reflected in conditions that effect society as a whole – obesity, materialism, anxiety and depression.

Fear, danger and excitement grab our attention because that is how the human body is wired to protect us.  The autonomic nervous system composed of the smart vagus nerve, and the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems developed so that humans have an immediate, unconscious ability to assess danger.  We pay attention to scary things to stay alive.  Ironically, the media outlets are chronically stimulating fear pathways in our brains and bodies so they too can stay alive.  Lest this appear a win-win situation, we pay a huge price when safe relationships take a back seat to chronically stimulating our fear pathways as a way to engage in the world.  With this imbalance, the sympathetic and parasympathetic pathways grow stronger at the expense of the smart vagus nerve which modulates the fear response when we are in safe relationships.   We become chronically afraid, stressed and ultimately, physically ill.

Like anything else, darkness can become addictive when repetitively fed to a brain that craves stimulation.   At the same time pathways in the prefrontal cortex that deal with more contemplative, reflective responses shrink from understimulation so the capacity of the person to understand is significantly reduced.  Because real estate in the brain is limited, when we chronically stimulate addictive pathways, we are weakening precious pathways needed for inspiration, creative solutions, the pathway to a higher consciousness, and positive emotions like those of empathy and even love.  

Dystopian stories today are darker because of the tolerance that normally develops in these biological feedback loops.  It takes a bigger, darker story to excite the brains of most teenagers in the 21st century.

Neuroscience now tells us that a person’s reality is formed by his experiences and beliefs.   The more one sees or seeks darkness, the more darkness is programmed into the brain and belief system pushing people toward depression, anxiety, and disempowerment.  Take this to an extreme and what you have is a world in which human beings have been programmed to dark deeds—material for a real thriller.

The good news is that we can change our reality through the same mechanism by which we’ve created it.  Brain change follows the rules: “use it or lose it” and “neurons that fire together wire together.”  This means that the more you stimulate a pathway the more robust it becomes.  If we simply shift the current balance of dark and light stimulation to our brains and bodies, there is a good chance that light, love, and wholeness will manifest.  

The idea that we need to overcome evil has been promoted from time immemorial by our institutions and culture.  Dystopian literature mirrors this by portraying an ongoing battle between darkness and light.  The reality is we are perpetuating this myth by programming our brains to this model where not only darkness is a natural part of our being, but action and drama is required to overcome it.  These books may be distracting.  They may validate our current world picture, but they do not empower young people.  Rather by focusing on darkness they dim the light.

This is why alongside of dystopian literature, children need from an early age a literature of light that raises consciousness and not hairs.  The pathways to wholeness require another stimulus—the affirmation that we have infinite almost magical powers of transformation.  By building neural pathways towards wholeness we encourage a healthy desire to explore the world of light as well as darkness.  Belonging to a whole is how we work most effectively, without having to override our stress response system, but working with it.

What this all means is that we hold the power to write our own story and much of the script is dictated by the brain. If we want that story to have a happy ending, best we keep that light burning bright.