It was a long time ago. There were no computers in classrooms. No ipods in pockets, just slide rules and mechanical pencils. We were studying nature vs nurture. Did birds sing instinctively or did they learn their songs? Some, like parrots, mynahs and mocking birds, learn to make many sounds. But most birds are limited to the distinctive calls of their own particular variety.
The class watched a film on scientific research into this question. A projector was rolled into the room from the audio-visual closet. The reel was removed from it’s large, circular steel can and a volunteer threaded the film through the machine. Another student closed the blinds on the windows, the teacher switched off the lights and we watched the movie in semi-darkness that made it difficult to take notes.
At first, the only thing I could think about was the noise of the projector — the whirring and clicking of all those turning parts, and the fan that kept the light bulb from overheating the film. Big count-down numbers brought us to the start. A few of us always counted out loud. Five, four, three, two… (There never was a one.) It just started with the title. Music came on with the credits. By the time the narrator’s voice began, I was no longer aware of the projector noise.
Researchers found that birds which had been isolated during their development did not learn to sing their characteristic songs. They were physically able to, but because they hadn’t heard the bird call during a critical time in their development, it never became imprinted on their little brains. Instead, they made sad, plaintive cries that lacked melody and vitality. An even sadder discovery was that even if those birds were reintroduced into their bird community, they could not learn to sing like the other birds of their kind. The time for developing their song had passed. It was too late.
Human beings are also subject to this kind of developmental problem. But in our case, the situation is much more complex. We have the mental capacity to learn, unlearn, relearn, adapt, or compensate for undeveloped traits. We also have the ability to hide our weaknesses by acting as if they do not exist. Perhaps most of us keep such things secret. Though we have learned to sing on the outside, what we hear inside ourselves are sad, plaintive cries.