Adolescent brain, liminality and the Universe

There is an ocean of interesting material on the development of the adolescent brain. Most of it concentrates on why teenagers are gloomy, risk-taking, drug-prone, drug-susceptible and hard to teach. I want to ask whether anyone has spotted research or discussion on a more positive or at least very interesting aspect to adolescent liminality.
Adolescence is a period of liminality: that is, of change and emergence. That is captured in much of the mainstream discussion which is out there online, and very good too. (A good starting point might be Sarah-Jayne Blakemore’s work.) But from my own experience of growing up, I would say that there is something as yet left largely unsaid about the poetic, the Romantic, the mystical and even the spiritual which is also to be found in the adolescent brain, mind, “heart” and “soul”.

I think it is to be found in the Goth urges of many teens. It may be in the Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and the sci-fi material they  seem to love (though that bit largely escapes me). It may even be American super-hero comics.

In my young years, I often found that I felt an almost unbearable sense of wonder at the spring-time cherry blossom on my humdrum suburban street. But I felt something more: I was prone to an astonishing and astonished sense that I was at one simultaneously with the universe and all its molecules, and with each passer-by and all humanity.

This was the unbearable immanence of being (why do I think this is not my phrase but a standard Japanese sort of thought?). It was also the sort of aloof, commanding, Master-of-the-Universe feeling one sometimes gets in an airplane. Wasn’t it a sort of pantheism? It certainly drew me to Keats: was it something to do with the Romantic Movement?

I think it may account for my powerful pleasure in Teilhard de Chardin and his Milieu Divin, then and since.

This all strikes me as very important because I think that much adult spirituality partakes of elements of these sorts of processes and ideas. It is an open question whether adolescents partake, perhaps in an unbidden, highly-emotional or unformed, or self-dramatising way, in this heightened experience. Even if they do, it may be that teenage and adult mysticism are alike in being merely tosh, or more the product of a psychological or neurological weakness than of anything very lofty or fine.

I also wonder how much all of this relates to serotonin levels in the adolescent or any other brain. (I find it hard enough to work out what is known about the difference of effect between high and low levels of this neuro-transmitter.)

Anyway, if any of this resonates with anyone, and especially if there is good thoughtful writing on the theme, I would be grateful to know.

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Publication date

27 June 2016


Mind & body