Your “mature” brain has mind of its own. It is intermittently balky and stubborn, reluctant to yield up its stored data.
Many years ago I memorized a few of John Milton’s sonnets. These poems are not only noble and politically engaged, they are also reflective, immaculately crafted, challenging, and melodious -- as good as any short poems in the language.
One night, a week or so ago, insomniac as usual, I tried to recall one of the finest of the sequence -- the great sonnet in which Milton condemned the ethnic cleansing by Roman Catholic Savoyards of a colony of Swiss Protestants.
There was a time when I knew this poem like the back of my hand, but try as I might, all that I could dredge out of my recalcitrant mind was the single phrase “triple tyrant.” (In Miltonese, the “triple tyrant” is the Pope, wearer of a three-tiered crown.) It's mighty frustrating to have so rusty a brain.
The next night, sleepless once again, I re-activated the tired old memory system and was able to scrape up a few more words. I retrieved “where still doth sway the triple tyrant.” (The word “sway” does not imply that the Pope has taken to dancing but rather that the holy father “holds sway” over his dominions.) In two days, I had assembled only a single line of poetry and still needed thirteen more to complete the sonnet. This sorry state of affairs cried out for radical new approach to memory-jogging.
It is well known that Omega-3 fatty acids (i.e. fish oils) increase the rate of transmission of certain brain waves that are linked to memory. On the third day of my adventure in sonnet-recall, I swallowed a fish oil pill rich in docosahexaenoic acid (commonly known as DHA). When I woke up next morning, there it was on the tip of my tongue (or the top of my brain) -– another line and a half of the sonnet: “Slain by the bloody Piedmontese that rolled/ Mother with infant down the rocks.” Did I do it all by myself? Or could it possibly have been the DHA?
And in what part of the brain lay hidden this poignant line of poetry before I was able to summon it? In what chemical form? Clearly the words were in storage, so to speak, but why couldn’t I freely access them? Was I unconsciously running some sort of failed search program? Attention searchers: examine poetry quadrant for missing sonnets by Milton, John [1608-1673]. Did the DHA shift the words from a dusty neglected old storeroom to facilicty currently in us?
Does fish oil really lubricate memory?
The next day, I doubled my intake of the oily acid and, marvellous to say, came up with the poem’s last line: “Early may fly the Babylonian woe” ("Babylon" is reformation code for "Rome"). On the fourth day of this experiment, I took three fish oil pills and lo and behold was able to remember the entire first quatrain of the sonnet: “Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints, whose bones/ Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold,/ Even them who kept thy truth so pure of old,/ When all our fathers worshiped stocks and stones.” There it is: Milton’s agony and fury, his uncompromising conviction, his contempt for pre-Reformation idol-worship, plus the confidence, that, because he's something of a prophet himself, he can boss god around.
I continued to take the pills but I was scared to increase the dosage for fear of provoking what Milton elsewhere calls the “fishy fumes.” After several days of medication and head-scratching, I had conjured up this much of the poem:
Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints, whose bones
Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold,
Even them who kept thy truth so pure of old,
When all our fathers worshiped stocks and stones;
in thy [blank], [blank] their [blank]
Who were thy [blank]
Slain by the bloody Piedmontese that rolled
Mother with infant down the rocks.
where still doth sway
The triple tyrant;
Early may fly the Babylonian woe.
And then, progress came to a halt. No matter how many glutinous pills I popped, no matter how I greased my memory, I could recover nary another syllable. Where was the rest of the poem concealed? Why couldn’t I fish it up? Had the molecules of which memory is constituted long ago disintegrated?
I've now declared the experiment officially over. Although the results are inconclusive, I've decided to continue with the fish oil regimen. It's obvious that my brain needs all the phospholipids it can get.
And after a week of disciplined forbearance, I've now peeked at the text of "On the Late Massacre at Piedmont." Every word was familiar -- even the ones that I could not recall. Perhaps I might ultimately have brought them to the surface; I'm convinced that they were lurking somewhere in the inner recesses of the brain.
I’ll re-memorize and hope for the best. Perhaps my newly fishified brain is ready for a renaissance. After all, I’m a lot richer in phosphatidylethanolamine, ethanolamine plasmalogens, and phosphatidylserine than I was just a week ago.
Loyal readers: here you may find John Milton's masterful sonnet "On the Late Massacre at Piedmont." Trust me, it's worth a look. In fact, it's worth committing to memory.