When We Were Young

hardy boys

Like so many artworks, the brain is largely an object of mystery. One secret yet to be discovered is how the fragile folds of matter locked inside our skulls can not only conceive art, create it and contemplate it, but can also experience being transported by it, out of the head, out of the body, out of space and time and reality itself.

~ Sarah L. Kaufman, Dani Player, Jayne Orenstein, May-Ying Lam, Elizabeth Hart and Shelly Tan

Ah, childhood. Today, people my age enjoy drifting back to their glory days — when they were kids. I think I was a reasonably happy, social kid. Sure, there was family drama and issues with other kids or teachers, but that seems to be ubiquitous for everyone.

(A friend bemoaned her family’s chaos and drama, so I tried to explain that her feelings were natural. Everybody thinks their family was screwed up. She didn’t respond, so I told her about my family, and she perked right up, “Wow. Yours is way worse than mine!” It didn’t make me feel any better, but seemed to help her.)

I was a pretty active kid, with an even more active big brother (and a much younger “pain-in-the-butt” younger sister). We played outside year ‘round, swam in the summer and participated in team sports as we got older. We had TV shows on Saturday mornings and some days after school, we played board games some evenings, if Lawrence Welk or other acceptable TV shows weren’t on. Saturdays we could go to the movies, maybe even a double feature with one of the great serials between the movies. Jungle Jim, Flash Gordon, Zorro and others kept us entertained and made us hurry back from the concession stand. We could walk or bike alone to friend’s houses, the local theater, the five-and-dime and, of course, school. That gave us time to wander beyond our block and glimpse a little more of the world.

The world was bigger back then. There were strange people and scary places out there that you never really experienced from the back seat when your parents drove somewhere. On foot or bike, you were close to things; you could find unusual items or be approached by strange kids, adults or dogs. Sometimes, you might just get confused about where you were exactly, growing wary until you were back in known territory where you knew whose yard or dog to avoid and which kids might give you a hard time.

But I think that my favorite times as a kid were spent reading. Adventure stories were my bread and butter for years (and to some extent, still are). Robert Louis Stevenson or Sir Walter Scott vied with Victor Appleton (Tom Swift), Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan), Franklin W. Dixon (Hardy Boys), and the “We Were There” series. Myriad other books passed through my hands, some birthday or Christmas presents, some loaned from friends and some from my weekly visits to the library. For the most part, the stories went too quickly — I didn’t want them to end.

I’ve heard the concerns that kids today spend too much time in front of the television, computer or video games, and social media (Youtube/Facebook/Twitter/Texting). In my day, comic books and ‘rock ‘n roll’ were the “Great Evils” corrupting us kids. Elvis and The Beatles on Ed Sullivan were decried, but when Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones hit TV we all knew the devil was about. American youth was being corrupted by ‘rock ‘n roll’ and maybe that’s why it was so easy a few years later to justify drafting them to die in Vietnam.

I agree that today we all spend a little too much time on-line or immersed in TV and video. However, a recent study reported in the Washington Post shows that we learn by experiencing stories,

A narrative conveys information from one person’s brain to another’s in an effective way. We can learn vicariously through another’s experience from a safe space, without really being involved, which is why storytelling is so powerful.”

Through vicarious observation of the actions and emotions of others, we learn how to act and react in our own world. Some of this is gained from shared experiences, where we participate as part of the audience to a play or music, and I might add, to movies and TV shows. We all have experienced retelling events from a movie or sitcom to our peers “around the water cooler”, and how we connect with those who also saw that episode or knew the characters. I have felt the same kind of connection when sharing my (feeble) video game-playing calamities with my son and debating how to better survive.

At summer camp, one of my favorite times was when the campfire burned low, the lights were dimmed, and my uncle stood up front to tell tales of boys’ adventures. “Ah yes, I remember it well. It was on a night not unlike tonight …” I suspected that, in my lifetime, I would never have to escape pirates or gangsters or spies, but I learned much about how to do it, if needed. I also got to experience the cumulative emotional reactions of the others in the audience. The Washington Post article notes:

According to the mirror system theory, our brain automatically mimics other people’s actions through its motor system.”

So, I’m not one of those that necessarily sees video games, TV or movies as negative experiences. Maybe we don’t need to dwell only on silly sit-coms or action movies, but break it up with some well-done, more realistic scripts. Just as reading Jane Austin conveys emotional reactions, some video games require us to make hard decisions and learn their consequences.

And sure, we all need balance in our lives. Put down the phone, get out and play, seek the fresh air, exercise those underused muscles, and see the world with your own eyes. Who knows what stories you’ll have to tell.

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, or adult.

Additional information:

is your brain on art?, By Sarah L. Kaufman, Dani Player, Jayne Orenstein, May-Ying Lam, Elizabeth Hart and Shelly Tan , The Washington Post, Sept. 18, 2017

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