The Changing Mind: A Neuroscientist’s Guide to Ageing Well
By Daniel Levitin, Penguin Life,
Reading this book is a prolonged encounter with déjà vu, which, as its author would no doubt explain, is a fancy French term for “I’ve seen this before”. The Changing Mind belongs to the dual category of popular science and self-help: in this case intended to cater for a growing cohort of the middle-aged and elderly anxious to reassure themselves that they can keep time at arm’s length.
But if this is the target audience, can it be possible that they have not already devoured some of the vast quantity of articles in the media (not to mention the resources of the internet) exhorting us all to take exercise, eat healthily, keep mentally active and maintain social contacts? For this, in essence, is the message of The Changing Mind.
The first part of the book is an accessible account of current neuroscientific conclusions on the workings of the brain, plus a certain amount on the psychology of personality. All of which is good to know – except that much of it has long been familiar to a general public curious to explore personal identity.
What is not so appealing is the relentless tone of cheeriness, as of a kindly nurse talking down to a doddery patient. Do we really need to be told that la dolce vita means the sweet life, that “ageing joyously” is within the grasp of all, and that smiling will make us happy? And as no popular science book is complete without a visit to our distant ancestors sitting round a campfire and confronting a wild animal, Levitin obligingly produces a jackal.
In other words, while the book purports to boost sagging morale by dangling the carrot of infinite possibilities even as we head into extreme old age, there is a distinct whiff of the patronising. The narrative is padded out with references to Levitin’s own glowing life, in which each day begins (we are told) with a breakfast of egg whites and oatmeal. His favourite café roasts its own coffee beans, and he enjoys a dual career as an academic and musician.
If only we believed in ourselves, we too could play the guitar like the nonagenarian Segovia and run like the centenarian Julia “Hurricane” Hawkins. The Tinkerbell Effect flits amongst us, scattering the fairy dust of science.
In the same spirit of competitive, rather than successful, ageing (as per the original US title), the text is peppered with the names of high-functioning individuals of the author’s acquaintance. These include numerous respected academics (especially lauded if they have continued working into old age) and showbusiness personalities.
The star of the show is the Dalai Lama, whose appearance highlights the paradoxical nature of this book. On the one hand, it seems to acknowledge that we must look beyond the laboratory to ponder the experience of ageing in the whole context of life. Yet Buddhism is recruited as another version of The Little Engine that Could. A woman in desperate circumstances is sent off chuckling after being told by His Holiness that she simply needs to look at things differently. Perhaps she should have remained celibate.
Levitin’s perspective is that of a high-status meritocrat in the world’s richest country. The vulnerabilities and difficulties of the less privileged, not to mention the accidents of illness and bereavement that descend upon most lives over time, require a broader understanding of how to make peace with the ageing process.
The tireless positivity of the book hints at an urge to gloss over reality: a kind of cosmetic surgery for the mind. At a time when Covid-19 is reminding us of the fragility of existence – the ageing body in particular – we need a profounder truth.
Levitin’s avowed purpose is, quite rightly, to demonstrate that all sorts of abilities continue to flourish in the latter stages of life, and that this should be respected. Simone de Beauvoir, in her monumental study of old age, observed that the elderly were commonly treated with a mix of impatience and condescension by the next generation.
Even now, when powerful political figures can be in their seventies and beyond, this may well be too often the case. One particularly encouraging feature of later years is a potential increase in creativity, thanks to a store of information that can be cross referenced in novel ways.
The fact is that life, given a modicum of health, is addictive, especially so to a mind that is full of riches. But no one should feel lacking through the failure to learn 59 languages in one’s eighties. Our value – at any age – lies in our moral qualities.
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