Urgent Issues of Our Time, Part II

So, as I was saying. The X-Men were always my jam. They appealed to me because, unlike other superheroes with their fantasies of power that came about usually through accidents (gamma rays, cosmic rays, radioactive bug bites), the X-Men (and -Women, and -Girls and -Boys) were who they were. In the comics, a mutation usually became active with the onset of puberty, which is just about the perfect way of talking about what happens to the adolescent body and brain. Think of Rogue, for whom intimate contact could have deadly consequences for the other person. Or Shadowcat, who in her social awkwardness could become a literal wallflower, fading into the wall and out the other side. Or Cyclops, who had to keep his vision (feelings?) covered up or risk causing limitless damage. Like millions of readers, I identified with these young adults who hadn’t asked for their powers, struggled to understand and control them, and in some cases would give anything to get rid of them.

What happens in adolescence that leads to such perilous places? We have long understood the changes that our bodies go through during puberty, with those new combinations of chemicals; those strange and powerful feelings; that hair.  It would be easy to think that you were going through this by yourself, and were suddenly separate from the human race. A mutant!

Recent work in neuroscience has been trying to understand the changes that take place in the teenage brain. NPR’s Dina Temple-Raston, in her extensive reporting on terrorism, wanted to understand the appeal of extremist groups like ISIS to adolescents. What would make a seemingly “normal” kid from a typical suburban background want to leave everything they knew and enter a life of secrecy and violence? Her excellent piece on reformed ISIS recruit Abdullahi Yusuf (seriously, it’s really good) shows how these questions must lead inevitably into teenage brain development. The teenage feeling of invulnerability, the aggrieved sensitivity to injustice, the penchant for risk-taking, the lack of consideration for consequences, can take an adolescent into any number of far-flung places. What’s missing during this time is that still, quiet voice that (tends to) guide us as adults. In the piece, Temple-Raston identifies it as the “part of the brain that neuroscientists liken to an internal compass, called the insula, can be built up during adolescence through critical thinking and self-reflective practices.”

This kind of strengthening practice, provided in Yusuf’s case through a reading list and assigned poetry, is what the X-Men find under the guidance of Professor X at the School for Gifted Youngsters (having a responsible adult mentor is clearly important as well). With these opportunities for reflection and control, those scary changes can become powers.

Now if only the films could get it right.

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