Poetry and mirror neurons: a hotch potch

Here I am sitting in front of one screen (old slow home PC), trying to marshal some thoughts and wondering if they will come quickly enough for the dogs to have an early morning ramble, finding myself being distracted by the process that I am wanting to write about, as I look and listen to what the other screen is doing to me (quick Mac laptop). My petty struggle mirrors some of the challenges facing teachers both in the face of what we know about learning and the resources that teachers and students have at their disposal.  Confused? Well, here’s a bit more context: fresh in my mind are two things – an evening of poetry and conversation with visiting poet Jo Shapcott last night; and ideas spinning out from the idea of the mirror neuron, which Bedales Director of Teaching and Learning, Al McConville, introduced me to a while back and which was one element of the talk he gave to parents on Saturday when we were discussing the Harvard researchers’ findings.

As I have followed up on these two threads this morning, watching a TED talk about mirror neurons (monkeys and peanuts in a lab in Parma) and then chasing up a line from an Emily Dickinson poem, I have found myself immersed in worlds that are so fruitfully distracting that I am in danger of not actually getting to the kernel of what I am trying to say. Being something of a YouTube ingenue, I am not prepared for what happens when I google the Emily Dickinson poem seeking the line that Jo Shapcott refers to: ‘There’s a certain slant of light /Winter Afternoons /That oppresses, like the Heft /Of Cathedral Tunes..’ and find myself listening and watching several times to the video shot in an Amherst cemetery and beautifully read; so here I am shot through with maudlin thoughts when I intended to be writing and thinking about something else. But, my semi-fruitful meanderings illustrate a point: that thinking and teaching as led by schools and teachers have to embrace this kind of process and that this kind of process is itself enriching.

What process? Well, here is a very crude map: stimulus (Jo Shapcott’s poetry and talk) – exploration (circling back to mirror neuron idea) – (feeble attempt at) synthesis.

It would have been much more straightforward to have been thinking in a straight line and then writing something that resulted from that linear process, but that is impossible when you have so much potential exploration at your fingertips. Intriguing in this case that the main stimulus comes from the oldest art form – that of the bard, the poet reading her work to other people assembled to listen. So, Jo Shapcott took us on her mind journey – bees, the Slender Loris, understorey, latent inhibition, dementia, risk, scorpion, cypress, artistic intent and golden parabolas. In engaging with her worlds – whether it is the Slender Loris in the rainforest or her auntie’s dementia, our mirror neurons are inhabiting those worlds, sometimes fleetingly. I here now have had those worlds jumbled by my subsequent journeys into the lab in Parma where the mirror neuron was identified and then the graveyard in Amherst which forms the backdrop to the Dickinson poem. Interesting thinking probably never did proceed in an orderly fashion, but the profusion and availability of stimuli mean that it is certainly not the case now. Meantime, patient dogs are mirroring my mood and waiting patiently, ready for their own, timeless stimuli.


Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.

One thought on “Poetry and mirror neurons: a hotch potch

  1. Wait for the epiphany which will synthesise and crystallise all these thoughts and will roll them into a ball of sweetness- see Marvell To His Coy Mistress.
    The lines: ” let us roll our sweetness into one ball/ And tear our pleasures with rough strife/ Through the iron gates of life.. I believe can be a metaphor for the birth of a creative idea from disparate elements, as well as the more implicitly erotic activity hinted at.
    What do you think?

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