I repeated the MRI two and a half years later. There was no “interval change,” no suggestion of any progressive brain disease; but the punctate lesion that my friend Sandy Antin had declared an artifact was not there. Indeed, it must have been an artifact. So, with any luck, my aging brain will continue to serve me in good stead for the foreseeable future—exactly for how long, who knows.
Does this mean that I have attained wisdom? At least enough not to flatter myself that I have. But like all of you, I have amassed my share of neural pattern-recognition devices, enabling me to understand my world and to act in it with a good-enough degree of efficiency. The entirety of these patterns, and also of those patterns that could have become part of my mental arsenal but haven’t, are the sum total of my life’s experiences, my mental striving, and my mental slack. I remember myself aged six talking to a neighbor aged fifteen and trying to imagine how a person that old must feel. Today I am a generally satisfied owner of a fifty-eight-year-old brain, feeling fine and wondering, what it is like to be seventy, eighty, or ninety years old.
The idea of this book was prompted by my introspection into the changes attending the flow of seasons of my own mind. The purpose was to glean beyond the introspection and try to grasp the mechanisms behind the mental changes. To that end, I have endeavored to examine the seasons of human mind both in the cultural and in the neurobiological contexts, and to connect the two vantage points into a coherent “natural history of the mind” through the life span. The natural history narrated in this book is admittedly incomplete. For instance, we barely touched on our mind’s moral and spiritual aspects, on how the moral and spiritual premises develop, and how they inform our mental life.
Despite these obvious omissions, as I am approaching the final stage of my inquiry, I find the result, on balance, satisfying, for I feel that the natural history of the mind that emerged from this inquiry makes sense, that it illuminates and informs my own introspection, certainly not completely but to a reasonable degree. The feeling, that “the seasons of our mind” are not all downhill and that some important mental gains are attained as we age, is grounded in neurobiological reality; it is not merely a desperate exercise in wishful thinking by an aging intellectual.
Has this reassurance completely removed the angst of my ripe middle age? Of course not. Do I regret that it hasn’t? No, I don’t, since in modest amounts such angst can be a great constructive force, motivating and mobilizing, reminding one that our time is finite and thus should not be squandered. But the two messages emanating loud and clear from my natural history of the mind are, on balance, reassuring.
The first message is that those of us whose mental lives have been both vigorous and rigorous approach their advanced years with a mighty coat of mental armor. This armor, a mental autopilot of sorts, will serve them in good stead during the final decades of their lives. This mental armor, the rich collection of pattern-recognizing attractors in the brain, is not an entitlement and its attainment in old age is not a foregone conclusion. It is a reward for the vigorous life of the mind in younger years.
We all hate clich?s, often forgetting that what makes them clich?s is that they are grounded in truth. Platitudes are boring not because they are wrong but because they are truistically self-evident. “The past is the best predictor of the future” is a well-worn clich?, but like most clich?s it contains a huge dose of truth. It is true in history, in economics, in politics, and it is true in the lives of our brains and thus of our minds.
The seemingly effortless ability to “see through things” that, depending on its caliber and context, we call competence or expertise, or in rare instances wisdom, does not come by itself as an epiphany of maturity or as an entitlement of old age. It is the condensation of mental activities across years and decades of life. The scope and quality of one’s mental lifetime will shape the quality of its final stages. “Wisdom begins in wonder,” said Socrates. This is as true now as it was then, maybe more so.
Our journey through life is through the life of our minds. A life of the mind rich in experiences, faced with mental challenges frequently, diversely, and unabashed by them, rewards us with a generous arsenal of cognitive tools. These cognitive tools empower us mightily as we age and shield us against the effects of brain decay. Life is finite—we all know that—but we prepare the stage for the endgame by the lifelong totality of our experiences and endeavors. This is true for our bodies, and it is equally true for our minds.
The second message is that, while taking full advantage of mental autopilot, one must not allow oneself to be lulled by it. Regardless of one’s age, one must continue to test one’s mind and strive for new mental challenges. In these times of infatuation with physical fitness everybody has heard about the “runner’s high,” a surge of joy caused by physical exertion and physical accomplishment. But how many among us have experienced the feeling of a “thinker’s high?” This feeling is dear to some scientists and artists. Not to all, mind you. Membership in a creative profession does not automatically mean the life of a creative mind. A famous chess player, an acquaintance of my parents when I was a little boy in Riga, once said: “Most people play chess with their hands, and only very few do it with their heads.” Even the most exalted intellectual vocations hold out the seductive option of sluggish mental assembly line. Recognize it for what it is, and don’t allow it to take over!
Setting aside experiencing it—how many members of the general public have even contemplated the possibility of having the feeling of a “thinker’s high?” How many people realize that there is such a thing as mental exertion? And even when people do understand, how far beyond mere rhetoric does this understanding go? How many among us truly recognize that strenuous thinking is an activity in its own right, occurring in space and time? When I try to explain to people that for me the hours spent walking my dog is time not wasted but gained, because it is my “pure thinking” time, the time that allows me to do all kinds of things in my head, including writing this book, too often I have the feeling that people don’t have the slightest clue of what I am talking about and probably believe that I am making it up to make my idle pastimes look respectable. With some people the notion of pure thought does not seem to cut muster, even when attached to the indisputably productive activity of walking a dog. But one should know better and one should listen to the poet:
My Mind to me a kingdom is,
Such present joys therein I find, That it excels all other bliss
That earth affords or grows by kind.
As England was shaking off the last vestiges of dogma-dominated medieval slumber and firmly claiming its place in the blossoming of the Renaissance, the age of Shakespeare, Newton, and Elizabethan Enlightenment, this verse by Sir Edward Dyer (1543?—1607) was emblematic of the rediscovered fascination with lively pursuits of the mind. Today as then, those who enjoy such pursuits strengthen and protect their minds from decay.
Some people are physically vigorous, and this carries lifelong rewards. Others are physically lazy, and this, too, has lifelong consequences. Equally, some people crave mental challenges, and others regard them as hardships. Given the choice, they stay within a seductively cozy mental comfort zone without realizing that a mental comfort zone is a mental stagnation zone. “There is no expedient to which a man will not go to avoid the real labor of thinking,” was Thomas Edison’s nihilistic pronouncement. While it certainly does not apply to all, it does unfortunately apply to many, maybe even to most. Make sure you are not part of that mentally sluggish slice of humanity!
Just as physical laziness comes at a price, so, too, does mental laziness. Mental laziness in youth endangers your brain in old age. Remember William James’s admonition about not squandering one’s formative, “plastic” years. Those who take delight in mental challenges, and seek them out above and beyond the bare necessities of workaday existence, scaffold their minds and their brains with powerful protective gear, which will go a long way toward ensuring a sound and rich mental life well into old age.
But vigorous life of the mind should not come to a halt at any time. It can, and must, continue well into advanced age. The longer it goes on, the longer it will continue to bestow its own rewards in the form of stimulating various growth processes in the brain and by so doing protecting it from the effects of decay. The concept of lifelong mental fitness, with better odds for keeping a sound mind for life as its reward, should become part of popular culture. I believe it soon will.