Popular Science Monthly/Volume 29/July 1886/The Care of the Brain

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By Professor AMBROSE L. RANNEY, M. D.

THERE is a natural tendency on the part of most parents to aim at precocity in their first child. They love to boast of its progress, and to draw favorable comparisons between it and the children of friends. Sometimes, as we all know, they overdo the matter, and produce a mental deformity, or a mental dwarf, or an idiot, or a grave in which their hopes as well as their error are buried.

No question is more difficult for a parent to decide than this: "When and how shall I begin to train the mind of my child?"

Unfortunately, the advice of teachers or physicians upon this topic is not always the same. Some answer such a question hastily; some from preconceived opinions that are not always free from bias. Others, again, fail to investigate, before answering, the hereditary tendencies of the child, whose future they are called upon to be instrumental in molding. Finally, most teachers and some of the medical fraternity are more or less ignorant themselves of the later discoveries made in cerebral physiology, and are therefore not always well fitted to be advisers respecting the best means to develop the organ of the mind properly.

The human brain is more wonderful and delicate in its construction than any invention of man. Few of those who have children seem to appreciate the care that should properly be exercised in promoting its natural growth and the best development of that organ—especially during the early years of life.

Parents who watch with anxiety against the possibility of bodily deformities in their children are often unaware of the harm that may be done to young brains by ignorance or neglect on the part of those who have them in charge. They know nothing themselves of the organ of the mind, but they think themselves justified in believing that a system of training which has produced good results in some children is applicable to each and every one.

Now, it should be remembered that minds, like faces, are not cast by Nature in the same mold. The quality of workmanship and the material is finer, so to speak, in some brains than in others. Some children are congenitally predisposed to nervous excitability or debility. Certain of the component parts of the brain become perfected during their development before others. Some of these parts are capable of acquirement from the moment of birth, while others are not called into play for many months afterward.

I have known many a child to be crowded prematurely to a point in mental development that has either arrested further growth of the intellectual faculties or caused its death indirectly.

Hardly a month passes in which I am not compelled to urge parents (often against their inclinations) to modify or discontinue some defective system of mental training of their children. Many cases of idiocy, epilepsy, St. Vitus's dance, dropsy of the brain, and other nervous diseases of childhood encountered by physicians, might have been prevented if the parents had been made intelligent respecting the dangers that encompassed the child, and used proper precautions against them.

Within the past decade, the functions of different parts of the brain have been determined with an approach to scientific precision. We are now able to trace (by methods lately discovered) the course and terminations of separate nerve-bundles which compose the bulk of the brain. Pathology has helped us to verify, in the case of man, the deductions drawn from experiments upon the brains of animals. The microscope has enabled us, furthermore, to detect structural differences between various groups of brain-cells, whose functions have been shown to be totally distinct from each other.

These and other discoveries (too numerous to mention here) have a practical value as well as a scientific one. They afford us many hints which may be applied during life. They aid us materially also in preventing as well as relieving diseased conditions of the wonderfully constructed mechanism.

These are the few physiological facts which I am particularly desirous of impressing upon the reader, since they form a basis for my conclusions. These may be summarized as follows:[1]

1. Different areas of the surface of the brain have functions peculiarly and exclusively their own. Thus the brain's surface may be likened to a map with its various territories, each of which is at times perfectly independent of the other in respect to its functions, but still capable of concerted action with the rest when such action is required. We recognize as distinctly defined those areas, for example, which preside over motions, sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing, general sensibility, and some others.

2. Each of these areas of the brain-surface has to be separately educated. The memories connected with past experiences are stored within the cells of the area which appreciates the facts as they occur.

3. Some parts of the brain develop more rapidly than others.

4. The education of some parts of the organ consists chiefly of the acquisition of memories of such things as the part in question has been specially designed to appreciate. This is particularly true of the parts related to vision, hearing, smell, taste, touch, etc.

5. The higher mental faculties, such as judgment, reason, self-control, etc., require the concerted action of different parts of the brain's surface. This is because all such acts are based, of necessity, upon our recollections of past events. These recollections may have been acquired by the aid of sight, hearing, general sensibility, smell, etc.

6. The cells of different areas of the brain do not exhibit in individuals the same aptitude for the acquisition of knowledge—some people remembering most easily what they see, others what they hear, others what they handle, etc.

7. In case some parts are deprived of their functions, other parts are rendered vicariously more active. We see this illustrated in the extreme sensitiveness of the ear and touch in the blind.

8. Prolonged disease of any part of the brain may cause a wasting-process (atrophy) within the brain-cells of that part.

With these deductions as a basis, we are prepared to discuss intelligently what may be regarded, in the light of existing science, as our guides toward promoting the best welfare and growth of this important organ. The views which I shall advance here are based upon the physiological facts enumerated. These have been satisfactorily demonstrated within the past decade.

In the first place, I would raise my voice in strong protest against the popular fallacy that every child, who presents no apparent deformity of limb or evidence of physical or mental weakness, "should be sent to school early to keep it out of mischief."

During the period of early childhood (from four to seven years of age) most of the knowledge gained by the brain is acquired chiefly, if not exclusively, through the organs of sight, of hearing, and of touch. The brain is thus kept in a state of healthy activity—receiving all manner of impressions, and storing up memories of what is consciously imparted to it. Of the special senses, sight is by far the most important to the child, because it is the most used.

Now, congenital and acquired deformities of the eye are not infrequent. They are among the most common of malformations—although too often unrecognized. Very often a serious defect of vision in a child is not suspected by its parents.[2] Again, the fact is frequently dismissed, even when the existence of such a defect is known, with the remark that "glasses are a disfigurement to a child, and that any child is better off without them than with them." I have been pained many times to hear medical men of intelligence support such a statement, and to urge their patients to avoid glasses as long as possible, in order that they might not become dependent upon them. To those who hold that idea, I would simply say that if they will read the article written by Dr. Loring upon this subject ("Harper's Monthly," August, 1879), and one by myself on a somewhat similar field ("New York Medical Journal," February, 1886), they will be convinced of their error and the sad results that may occur from such ignorance.

I earnestly advise, therefore, every parent to consult some expert (not an optician), before sending a child to school, and thus to ascertain if the organs of sight be anatomically perfect. If they are not so, the health and mental vigor of the child are liable to be slowly undermined.

I have seen serious damage done both to the health and mind of a child by the neglect on the part of parents to remedy an optical defect early by glasses. Many evil results may arise from the neglect of this simple precaution. Children very often become cross-eyed—the laughing-stock of their playmates—in consequence of an optical defect that has not been corrected early. Again, they frequently develop habits of idleness and incur the censure of their instructors on account of some optical defect, because their eyes cause them an indescribable sense of weariness when study is attempted, which a child is unable to withstand. I have encountered many adults who have struggled on to manhood with an ocular defect of which they were unconscious—suffering excruciating headache and many other symptoms of nervous derangement. When glasses brought relief at last, they have experienced an unknown sense of delight in reading and mental effort. I recall an instance of this character where a patient of mine would frequently rub a blistering lotion into the hair to relieve a headache that was almost incessant, and unfitted him for mental or physical labor. Glasses brought about a cure that was to him miraculous. The eyes of a child are fortunately more pliable and elastic, if we may use such an expression, than of an adult; hence some optical defects may be compensated for by muscular effort for years, although always with detriment to the physical vigor.

It is a difficult matter in many instances to make laymen, and even those of the medical profession who have given this matter little attention, appreciate the difference between "seeing without effort" and "seeing with eye-strain." The perfectly constructed eye should bring the images of all objects removed from it beyond the twenty-foot limit to a focus exactly upon the retina without any effort on its own part. It should be able to afford distinct vision of distant objects while passive; and thus rest itself from the fatigue of focusing objects within a circle of twenty feet radius. The far-sighted eye knows no such repose during the wakeful hours. Although the vision is very acute in most far-sighted children and in spite of the fact that they are unconscious often of the strain produced by the unceasing muscular efforts required to see with distinctness, this condition of the eye tends (when not corrected by glasses) to weaken the nervous energies and produces in some cases the most distressing nervous symptoms. The far-sighted eye is particularly liable to be left without correction because its existence is often unsuspected.

2. I would suggest that the parents or guardian of a child, that has hereditary predisposition to debility or disease, should consult some intelligent physician respecting the advisability of sending such a child to school. Advice can then be had in regard to the studies which the child should pursue, and the daily amount of mental effort which it may safely attempt.

Some children are better able to apply themselves to study at five years of age than others are at ten. Irrespective of the fact that some of the brightest men of all epochs have shown remarkable precocity at a very early age and have been subjected to mental discipline when very young, I deem it wise to caution parents against an experiment that may prove disastrous to the future welfare of their offspring.

3. I would urge every parent, as a precautionary measure against disease of the brain, to avoid (from birth to the age of seven) all romps or other form of excitement immediately before the child is put to bed. Such excitement tends to prevent healthy sleep. It may thus precipitate the development of some nervous trouble in the child, by depriving the brain of its proper rest. Too much stress can not be laid upon this point. The error referred to is one that is thoughtlessly committed by thousands of parents.

4. Every child should get at least ten hours of good sleep each night. The old saying that a one hour's sleep before midnight is worth two after is not to be disregarded. A child between the years of two and seven should be in bed and asleep by 6 p. m. every day.

5. The sleeping-rooms occupied by children should be large and well ventilated. They should be lighted by the direct rays of the sun, and have large windows. It is far better to give up the best room in the house, if necessary, in order to insure the health of your children, than to reserve it as a parlor for the entertainment of guests.

6. Children should eat at a separate table from their parents until ten years old at least. They should take their hearty meal at midday. It is not conducive to the proper development of any child to be surrounded constantly with food of which they should not partake; nor is it wise to load the stomach with food before retiring.

7. If you wish to keep children free from disease, avoid all pastries and sweets, as far as possible, and confine them to simple and nutritious food. The habit of feeding candy to children between meals, or of allowing them to eat at irregular intervals, is to be strongly condemned.

The nervous system is particularly affected by gastric and intestinal derangements during childhood. This is also the case with adults, but to a smaller degree. Convulsions in children are often the direct result of improper feeding. I recall a case of an adult whom I once was called upon to treat, where an epileptic fit would invariably occur whenever he ate of banana. Stopping that fruit (of which he was very fond) cured the attacks.

8. Insure exercise for your children in the open air during all seasons of the year. Cold or inclement weather should not hurt a child if properly dressed for it. Avoid chilling the surface of the body or the contact of damp clothing to the skin, as far as possible, especially if the child has a hereditary predisposition to tuberculosis or scrofula. Even during infancy, I believe in the inhalation of fresh air for at least two hours daily, untainted by the gases of furnaces, gas-light, imperfect sewerage, etc., in which most city houses abound.

An open fire in the nursery tends to purify the air during the winter months, when the windows are kept closed; and prevents overheating of the room. The temperature of a nursery should never be allowed to exceed 70°, and should be as nearly uniform as it is possible to keep it.

Children with scrofulous tendencies or a hereditary predisposition to tuberculosis should be reared in the country, if possible, until they have passed the seventh year. This tends, in many cases, to prevent the development of hydrocephalus and epilepsy, to which such children are strongly predisposed.

9. Avoid in the case of children all books of a particularly exciting character.

This suggestion applies with great force to those who display a tendency to nervous affections, or who inherit a decided predisposition thereto. The paper-covered novels for boys, so extensively sold to-day, in which murder, rapine, and hair-breadth escapes are frequent, are very pernicious to the young.

Try and cultivate in your children a love for that which will both instruct and amuse them. Near-sighted children always prefer books and in-door amusements to out-of-door sports; hence they are usually spoken of by their parents and friends as precocious beyond their years. This is a mistake. Glasses will remedy the evil, and enable such children to enjoy romping games, etc., which imperfect vision had previously rendered impossible or unattractive.

10. Teach your children, even when young, to develop their memories. Do this by all possible methods, except the committal of prose or poetry in excess. Nothing pains me so much as to hear a very young child recite long pieces from memory, which could have been acquired only by protracted study. Such feats of memory may be followed by injurious results to the brain. It is said that a famous conjurer was accustomed to test his boy's perceptive memories by asking him to recall all he saw at a passing glance when walking by shop windows. In this way the boy was soon able to grasp, by his organs of sight, many details of objects that had previously escaped him.

The eyes are our most valuable organs. They afford food for thought, and give us one half of our information at least directly. If they are anatomically perfect, they can be used to perceive objects at a distance of more than twenty feet as perfectly as within that radius. Near-sighted persons can not do this, because objects of moderate size have to be brought closer to the eyes than twenty feet before their details are apparent. In many of our modern school-rooms the blackboard is more than that distance from the farthest row of seats; hence a near-sighted child can not see blackboard explanations well, and a far-sighted child is subjected often to an excessive and unnatural strain of the eyes in its attempts to follow them. Such exercises form a prominent feature in our present methods of teaching. It is an easy matter to teach children to dexterously use their eyes, as well as their ears and fingers, and to remember the details of all they see, hear, and handle, if the parents or instructors will use a little tact in that direction.

11. Encourage athletics in children, even at the expense of some mental progress, until the body is well developed. Healthy bodies tend to keep the mind vigorous and to prevent nervous derangements. Habits of exercise acquired during childhood tend to promote a love for athletics in the adult, which often helps to counteract the bad effects of anxiety and mental fatigue. Horseback-riding, hunting, fishing, base-ball, tennis, and other out-of-door sports, are important aids to longevity.

12. Respecting the education of children, I believe that object teaching should be first employed, and continued until the child exhibits all the evidences of physical and mental vigor. It is time enough to begin systematic instruction when the brain is well stocked with memories of all kinds, and when the perceptive faculties have been made acute by careful discipline. Many a child has taught itself to read by playing with blocks upon which animals and other objects are printed above the letters that spell their names.

When the study of books is deemed advisable, let it be done in a well-lighted and thoroughly aired school-room, and not at home in the evening by artificial light. When the body is fatigued by play and the routine of the school during the day, it is contrary to common sense to weary the brain still more by urging a child to mental effort when the light is poor and the body needs rest. If a child must study at home, let it be done in the early morning hours, after a light repast on rising from the bed.

To my mind, the natural talents of each child should be allowed free scope for development. It is absolute folly to dwarf the brighter parts of a young intellect by a fruitless endeavor on the part of the parents or teacher to bring out some talent for which the child has little or no aptitude. All minds can not be compressed into an identical mold without doing serious injury to some individual brains. A child with keen perceptive faculties and good reasoning powers is capable of growth in some directions, much more rapidly and with far greater pleasure to itself than in others.

Finally, I would suggest that parents study with care and anxiety the mental and physical traits of their offspring. Allow neither to detract from the other. Pick out for each child the line of development for which Nature seems to have furnished the best material, and the result will conduce to the future success of the child and the ultimate happiness of the parents.

  1. There are certain anatomical and physiological facts respecting the human brain to which the attention of the reader could be directed with benefit before the practical part of this subject is discussed. To those who are interested in this field, I would refer them to an article contributed by myself to "Harper's Monthly Magazine," April, 1885, and to the popular work of Luys upon the "Human Brain," D. Appleton & Co.
  2. Far-sighted subjects have remarkably acute vision in spite of the fact that the eyes are too shallow. They see entirely by the aid of muscular effort, and sooner or later suffer from the effects of "eye-strain" unless the proper glasses are worn.