Cumberland Times-News

May 18, 2013

Feed your memories before they’re used up

Maude McDaniel, Columnist
Cumberland Times-News

— Here’s what I’m worrying about this week: the modern pollution of early memory. Don’t get it? Well, that’s why I’m writing this article.

The other day I spotted a grandson (one of mine, that is) happily going through his older brother’s entire collection of Pokemon. At the age of 8 he has just learned to read well, and was being introduced to that vast collection of 20-year-old stories, iconic life adventures, and simplistic tales from, no, not the Bible. Not the Gilgamesh epic, or the Odyssey, all of which are ancient writings that developed out of real life experiences, and give readers age-old insight of what it was like in the early days of being human. Nope, these are the hundreds of stories of Pokemon, all of them invented for money out of whole cloth and connected to nothing in real life except children’s (especially boy children’s) desire for a coherent past upon which they can build a coherent future — preferably (the boys again) with a little violence included.

And my point is? When children are born they come complete with a totally unmarked memory, completely clean as it never will be again to the earliest influences it can dig up. The things you learn when you are very young, will stay with you in some form for the rest of your life. Unlike what you learn later on, including, in my own experience, algebra and plane geometry.

In other words, I believe that the earlier you learn something, the more likely it is to stay with you. (Not that you will always live by the rules you first learned — but you will never forget them!)

Ok, you want an example. Surprise, surprise, I just happen to have one ready right here:

Now as I was growing up, I learned lots of verses from the Bible, and lots of lines from classical poetry, you know, Byron, Keats, Dickinson, Shakespeare. (Well, maybe not a lot of Shakespeare, but I did read Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare in my early teens, and faked it after that.) Apparently, my mind still had some room left, because I did retain the plots, at least until very recently. Can I keep them straight now? No way, Jose. (There, see, even my attempts at slang sound like about 1950 — I still remember some of that era.)

But here’s the thing: the earlier I learned something the better I retained it. I can rip off your common nursery rhymes at the drop of a hat. The first songs I sang in junior choir, easy as pie.

You want an example? Consider my retention of a poem I learned early on in my life, at my father’s urging, as I remember. I was probably about the same age as my grandson who recently fell into Pokemon — say, about 8. Like his elder brother, he will probably take on Ugly Dolls later, still another recent innovation of boys’ toys, complete with individual backstories that have no earthly connection with real life or history. (I admit that American Girls, the dolls that come with real life-connected histories are the exception to this.)

And even if I have talked about this before, it’s worth another look for both of my readers. I cannot do algebra anymore; I have been known to forget words to music I am singing, and prayers I am saying. But I have never never never forgotten the immortal words of “Behold the Mighty Dinosaur” learned at about the age of seven, when my memory was fresh and green, and I barely even got the joke. I didn’t take Latin for another eight years or so, but you don’t have to know Latin to smile at it. (Okay, humor was different in those days.)

Behold the mighty dinosaur,

Famous in prehistoric lore,

Not only for his weight and length,

But for his intellectual strength.

You will observe, by these remains,

The creature had two separate brains,

One in his head, the usual place —

The other at his spinal base.

Thus he could reason “a priori”

As well as “a posteriori.”

 If there was anything after that, I don’t remember because when I got the laugh I never finished it Anyway, my point is that of all things I have ever learned, this one I memorized when my memory was still basically uncluttered. And this one is the one that I have retained all these years. We should be trying to find wonderful learning experiences for children with uncluttered memories — preferably with a touch of humor — but, please, not Pokemon with its fake histories, or any more of those children’s toys that prize killing (even the killing of bad guys) over, say, good will, friendship, and giving help in times of need, Ideas we will retain all our lives, because we heard them when our memories were not already used up on junk.

Maude McDaniel is a Cumberland freelance writer. Her column appears on alternate Sundays in the Times-News.