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Page last updated at 11:28 GMT, Wednesday, 15 April 2009 12:28 UK

The power of the child within

By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

Under pressure or on our own, we often hear songs or poems we've learnt by heart as a child. Remembering helps us cope in extreme and dangerous situations, but why?

"It was all in my head - my father would play the piano and I would have a mental party in the hole in the ground."

Peter Shaw and grandson
Peter Shaw's grandson was born while he was held hostage

That hole was where Peter Shaw was held captive for five months in 2002, after being kidnapped while working in Georgia for the European Commission. The businessman from South Wales was chained around the neck and kept in the dark almost constantly.

It's hard to imagine how people survive in such extreme conditions, but those who've been through such stressful situations say reciting a childhood song or poem helps.

Mr Shaw used memories of his father playing the piano at family parties to get him through his ordeal, which ended after he was rescued by Georgian soldiers.

Personal lullaby

"There wasn't a day that went by during my incarceration in the hole that music was not there," he says.

"My father was a very good piano player and I could hear him playing certain tunes in my mind. It was all in my head, I would hum along and say the words... just to stop the feeling of isolation overwhelming me."

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Experts say there are several reasons why songs and poems learnt in childhood can help people in such extreme situations.

"The brain is like a filing system," says psychologist Dr James Thompson.

"Our first entries get prize position as the filing cabinet is rather empty because we are so young. As a result these memories are remembered above others."

The content of childhood songs and sayings are also often intended to reassure and comfort. That is why we remember them when times are hard. "They are incantations," he says.


When Heidi's son was born prematurely at 23 weeks, weighing just 1lb 6oz (0.45kg), she couldn't see how he could survive.

"I had never been so scared in my life," says the teacher and mother of three from Devon.

A long-forgotten song from her childhood kept repeating in her head as she sat by her son's incubator. She remembered her mother playing One Day At A Time Sweet Jesus on the record player every Sunday while cooking the roast.

"Singing the words to the chorus over and over again gave me peace," she says.

Theo and his mother Heidi
Heidi still sings the hymn to Theo

"It was my own lullaby, I suppose, in my head. That was very comforting thing for me."

Her son survived and after four months in intensive care was allowed home.

"I still sing the song but now it's not about getting me through one day at a time, it's in celebration - I belt it out," she says.

Often the stories the songs tell can also be helpful, says Dr Stephen Joseph, of Warwick University.

"They can be metaphor for hope and have a positive value. Also, the repetitive rhythm of a nice piece of music can be soothing and comforting. Children's song in particular can have this type of rhythm."

For Ghias Aljundi, a political prisoner of conscience who was tortured and held in Syrian cell for four years without charge, the power of a childhood poem he learnt cannot be underestimated. Called My Mother, he recited it during his imprisonment.

"The poem became like a prayer, it was my reality," he says. "I could feel it, like something you feel inside you, like when you feel loved. It was my survival."

Below is a selection of your comments.

Oddly enough I've found myself humming "Baby Bumble Bee" when at work dozens of times. I even recall thinking to myself how did this song get into my head? I don't have children and have no reason to have heard it recently (like when a song gets tuck in your head while hearing it at the grocery store). But thinking back to the last few times I recall humming it it is always around deadlines and stressful moments at work. It really is amazing how the human mind works.
Alexis, Charlotte, North Carolina USA

This might help clarify the difficulty those who had abusive childhoods have adapting to even the normal stresses of life.
Gloria Kohut, Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

When I was very little, my dad used to sing "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?" to me and this used to come into my head all the time after I was diagnosed with breast cancer nearly three years ago. He passed away 12 months before I was diagnosed.
Linda, Kirkcaldy

Rather less intense than those experiences, but... I was somewhat surprised when, feeling depressed about moving on from my current niche in life, I found myself humming "Keep Me Travelling Along With You". It was a song we used sing at the end of every school year aged 5-11, and its poignancy and the bitterweet memories attached must have dug deeper than I'd realised.
Philippa, London

A comforting read. My Father was a prisoner in Stalin's camps WWII. He told me a little at a time about his experience there. Story song and poems became a great source of identity, belonging and escape from the harsh conditions, starvation etc. Now I have made some of these stories for telling to others and these bring my listeners and my self inspiration and various connections to for each individual....from there own history.
Sue Hulse, Dudley West Midlands

This helps clarify the difficulty those who had abusive childhoods have adapting to even the normal stresses of life.
Gloria Kohut, Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

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