Developing Mental Power
George Malcolm Stratton

[Childhood Education, 1922]


Even in what has been reviewed thus far, we have caught glimpses of the mind's behavior. But there has been interest in refutation, in denial; and denial by itself profits little. Perhaps this spirit of contention can now be quieted, to become the prelude of something positive and favoring, and we shall be willing to look directly at the mind itself, to see, if possible, its constitution.

When once we have ceased to notice our disputants save upon occasion and out of the corner of the eye, their artificial divisions of the mind into faculty and function will in due time tone down to their proper value. The reality of the mind will gradually be restored to us; even, as in looking at the picture of the dissected muscles of the face, we can in time correct their true and yet false impression, knowing that these ghastly members are in life fed with warm blood and clothed in soft skin and controlled by affection and intelligence, and in their stead we see once more the human and expressive countenance.

And first of all we shall see that the mind with all its variety of operation is one, is organized, is whole. Its powers may be distinguished and named and discussed separately, but they hold together; no one of them can be understood, much less trained and educated, apart from its fellows.

Indeed, the mind itself is vitally connected with the body, and the child is both mind and body. Whatever seriously influences his body influences his mind. If he is mentally slow or is widely uninterested, we may well inquire whether he is undernourished or physically fatigued, or in bodily discomfort, or is sick. Poisons uneliminated that disturb the child's nerves and muscles disturb also his mind; they poison his intelligence, his emotions, his will.

Some of the great discouragements of teaching will be gone when, by wise cooperation with the home and with physicians and nurses, these conditions in the bodies of school-children are everywhere recognized and are given the care which science would suggest. Deafness, defects of sight, may be at the bottom of what seems utter lack of interest. The child's sense of vigor, of well-being, which makes him ready to push on through difficulties; or that opposite condition, in which he is listless or discouraged or irritable - these are often the expression of the bodily state, and are weakened or made more intense, according to the direction in which the bodily state is changed.

Even the muscular "set" of the face reacts upon the mind. A child will more easily be cheerful deep within, if his sour expression can even artificially be sweetened. A sullen look if forced to become a smile is apt to start a change which leavens all his feeling until the smile is free and genuine. Likewise the position of the body affects the attitude toward the object of our attention. A child will notice the difference, if first he undertake his problem with body all languid and ill-supported, and now he pull his body together, making it energetic, even aggressive, toward the task in hand.

That the body, if ill-treated, will take vengeance upon the mind may be illustrated in another way. It is not safe even for the health and progress of the mind to interfere with what seems so unmental a function as that of right-handedness or left-handedness. A left-handed child, if he be compelled continuously to suppress his preference and to act as though he were right-handed, will in some cases show symptoms that are a clear fusion of bodily and mental distress. He may come to stutter and, becoming embarrassed, may incline to remain alone.

The original violation of that which, according to our present knowledge, is an innate advantage of one side of the body, has here disturbed the delicate nervous mechanism of speech and, through that, has changed the color of distant regions of the mind; and relief has been known to come when the interference ceased.

We are only at the threshold of our knowledge of the brain and of the interrelations of brain and mind. It is improbable that a serious effect in one part of the brain-cortex ever leaves the rest of the brain-cortex, or leaves all forms of mental action, unaffected. The change may be greater in one region than in another, but it is perhaps never narrowly circumscribed.

But while the body thus influences the mind, the reverse is also true. The eagerness of the child's interest is reflected in his kindly look, his forward-bent body; his boredom, his vacant eye, his fidgeting. But in a less passing way the mental condition is all the while helping to build or tear down the body's strength and health. The digestion of food, the rate and depth of breathing, the action of the heart and of the other parts of the system that carries the blood - all these and more are constantly being spurred or reined in - because of what goes on in the mind.

Healthful interests, healthful enjoyment, freedom from worry, are strength-giving for the mind and body of children as of adults. The effect of emulation in school, that within bounds is so wholesome; the hunger for the praise, the dread of the blame, of teacher and parent; - these are rightly kept short of persistent anxiety, especially in the weak and the sensitive.

Moreover, certain forms of skill found in professional work would be impossible without strong support from consciousness. A dentist whom I know is of the opinion that the young men among his fellow students who had character have become the more skillful dentists; those of weaker stuff did not drive themselves on, but rested with inferior work; that the one man in a large city who he knew had the greatest reputation for skill had carried through and then taken out the same piece of work six times before he could himself be satisfied with it. How much more is the creative skill of hand of the great sculptors, painters, and musicians connected with extraordinary powers of mind, and not of body only.

Yet one might easily from all this expect a more precise accord between certain bodily and mental functions than is actually found: it has Not been proved, for example, that success in manual training points to success in such studies as English, mathematics, or science; those that have unusual skill of muscular movement do not, as a class, appear to be the ones that have high intellectual ability.

It would seem, then, that although we can well expect large mental benefits from whatever makes the body well-knit and resistant to disease, yet we can prophesy less surely for the mind from those physical activities that include some particular precision and skill, and which are found to occur, not infrequently, without full strength and health of the body entire.

But in spite of these particular exceptions, it has been found by Mead that normal children as a group are heavier, taller, and stronger of body than are feeble-minded children. And Doll showed that even within a group of defective children there is a relation between their bodily and their mental measurements: as we go down the scale of mental defects, we come to greater physical defects as well. Thus we find reciprocity between mind and body; currents of cause and effect run back and forth between them, bringing consciousness and the nervous system with all the other physical organs into an intercourse that is constant, uniting them to make the person one and complete.

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