Mnemosyne and the wiring of the brain

To look at—for example—the Arden edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is to be reminded that Mnemosyne is the mother of the Muses. Shakespeare does not merely remember the material that he has read in Plutarch’s Theseus, Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calendar, Golding’s translation of The Metamorphoses, and other works including some of Erasmus; he has remembered and retained the words that they use, and has taken and woven them into a confection that readers and hearers marvel at. Shakespeare is a lover of words with a fervent memory.

There has been research at the University of Seattle into how children’s brains operate in the early years. It seems to confirm the theory that the human brain, after the manner of a computer, possesses an application which one might call My Brain: this is preprogrammed to wire the brain around the age of three, according to what data and stimuli it has received up to that point, and how it has been operating. So the brain of an Inuit child will be wired differently from that of a child in the Amazonian rainforest, or a child living in London.

This has actuated the Seattle researchers’ recommendation that children should not watch television before the age of three.

A further theory is that the brain is programmed to do this again—to rewire itself—at some time during adolescence. This is borne out by what I have observed, startlingly in the case of some pupils, and it confirms what I was told as a young teacher: that the habit of memorizing things and acquiring vocabulary is vital to a person’s further development. For if memorizing is an habitual activity of the brain, it will be incorporated in that teenage rewiring, and the power of memory will develop further.

Next post: The schwa.

Vocabulary: principal parts

The principal parts of verbs may arguably be learnt early. The relation of so many Latin verbs to English – especially the supine of them – can enthuse the likely lad or lass with philological inclinations (something that the Cambridge Latin Course almost fails to do) and presents to all pupils a realisation about their own language.

Principal parts are not foreign to English, and the continental child who is being taught English thoroughly will learn a list of those verbs that form in the ‘strong’ mode, i.e. as in German: forget, forgot, forgotten; lie, lay, lain; swim, swam, swum.   For a list of these that can be used for practice, see the Morphology page: one or two of them are challenging.

After noticing this, the idea of Latin principal parts becomes more intelligible, once it is explained that Latin has four instead of three. (For that rare child who is keen on such things, and is already thinking of Greek, it can be mentioned in passing that a Greek verb can have seven.)

The supine, which roughly corresponds to the English PPP, is of interest, not only for the hundreds of English words ending –ion, but for the further possibilities. Most Latin verbs do not produce a full set, but the common verb audio does: audition, auditor and auditorium.

Latin words like lavatorium and laboratorium are of interest, as are purgatorium, conservatorium and dormitorium; victor, narrator, tractor, motor, doctor, navigator, creator, inspector, actor etc.

By the way, the word factorium was used only to mean an oil-press. Not many things in the ancient world took place on a large scale, but that did.

Later, the derivatives of the present participle are of interest to many children: regent, agent, tangent (and contingent), cogent, patent, latent, fluent, etc.

One child, who later became a well-known classicist and author, said he decided what was the subject for him the moment he saw some of these things written on the board in his classroom.

Next post: Mnemosyne and the wiring of the brain.