Twilight literature

The effect on the teenage brain of books like Twilight and the Harry Potter series is to be examined at Cambridge University.

Some of these books are huge phenomena. What is happening in the teenage brain when they read books like Twilight that invite fear and abhorrent emotional responses?

Professor Maria Nikolajeva

Scientists, authors and education experts will all gather to discuss whether there are 'Twilight zones' in the teenage mind; areas of the brain in some way affected or altered by the reading of books like the wildly-popular vampire novels of Stephanie Meyer.

A three-day conference from September 3-5 will make connections between recent neuroscience research and the representation of the adolescent in literature, film, computer games and social networking sites.

Organiser Professor Maria Nikolajeva, said: "We are bringing together people from different disciplines from all over the world to look at the physiological, psychological, chemical and sociological effects of reading teenage fiction.

"Research is going on not just here but around the world into neuroscience and literature; how the teenage brain responds to narrative in the printed word, computer games, media and social media. These things can be the most important part of a teenager's life.

"We need to study this to see what it's all about. Do we want young people to go on reading? Does it matter?"

The conference is one of the first of its kind and includes keynote addresses from author Meg Rosoff and the hugely respected American linguistic anthropologist Shirley Brice Heath.

Sessions at the conference include 'What is it about good girls and vampires?' 'My life would suck without you' and also a session looking at how gay teenagers are portrayed in young adult literature.

Nikolajeva added: "We can absolutely say that all these different forms of entertainment for teenagers have values. There is evidence, for example, that library use increases among teenagers the day after a popular film comes out.

"Some of these books are huge phenomena. What is happening in the teenage brain when they read books like Twilight that invite fear and abhorrent emotional responses?"

Professor Nikolajeva said that the current trend for darkness and dystopia in children's literature, prevalent in books such as Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, reflected concerns in the wider, adult world.

"These trends come in waves. A hundred years ago it was about boys having adventures and girls finding husbands. From the 1950s to the 1970s we had emerging sexuality and parent conflict.

"Now, the situation in the world makes us anxious. We've had things like 9/11 and global warming. There is fear and disaster. Since the turn of the millennium this has been a tangible trend which is interesting - and disturbing."

Professor Nikolajeva warned that children's authors carried a huge weight of responsibility on their shoulders, especially with contemporary predilections for ever darker fiction.

She said that because the teenage brain is going through so many changes and is, in effect, unstable, children's authors, film-makers and game developers had a moral responsibility to make sure there remains some element of hope and positive ethics within their work.

She added: "Teenagers cannot really make decisions in the same way adults can. Synapses in their brains are breaking and reforming and the chemistry of the brain is changing."

"So there is a social responsibility that goes with this. However, with most of the books and films aimed at teenagers, you find there is always some hope.

"The conference is very important for us. It's one of the first of its kind and is very interdisciplinary. Hopefully we might be able to find out a little more about what is going on inside the teenage mind."

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