The verse produced in Baghdad by the Abbasid dynasty poets Abdullah Al-Mu’tazz (ninth century) and Abu Al-Ala Al-Ma’aari (tenth century) speaks to us across the years in vivid and at-once familiar translations by Abdullah Al-Udhari and George Wightman (Birds Through a Ceiling of Alabaster, Penguin Classics, 1975). The poets’ subject-matter is the beauty of natural phenomena and human frailty; how language conserves that beauty and frailty; why honouring the earth matters. The poems also address impermanence and wonder. There are frank admissions of disappointment in others (“Some people are like an open grave”), meditations on celestial mystery (“The Comet”), and everywhere the sense that life-cycles never repeat exactly. Tradition and cultural transmission entail variation.
Something similar might be said about psychological development – very few behavioural preferences are inherent and even these can be environmentally shifted. All babies respond to faces, but children in different cultures, with different ideas about politeness, look at them in different ways.
Visualisation isn’t a given, either. In a fascinating paper on the interdependence of visual imagery and sensory-motor skills (“Mental rotation and the human body: Children’s inflexible use of embodiment mirrors that of adults”, by Markus Krüger and Mirjam Ebersbach), the authors show how the ability of children to perform mental rotation tasks depends on knowledge of how the body works: if kids can see anatomical orientations reflected in standard cube combinations, they can rotate these combinations (more) successfully. Psychologists already knew this was true of adults, but the extension of “use of embodiment” to children is revealing. It suggests that “imagery” isn’t a discrete ability, but one that’s formatively bound up with sensorimotor processes and only separated from them over time.
Everything is conditional, in other words – a fact worth bearing in mind as you listen to this first episode in season two of The Neuromantics, recorded in lockdown, and always responsive to a changing environment . . .
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