Can the brain improve with age?

Garry Kasparov, in my opinion the most formidable chess champion of all time, recently competed in an online elite chess tournament, centred on the hub of St. Louis, base of the multi-millionaire chess philanthropist Rex Sinquefield. This was a different kind of competition from the type of events in which Kasparov was accustomed to triumph. Those were classical clashes of chessboard arms, with face-to-face combat conducted under relatively sedate time controls. This was something different.

The St. Louis event, apart from being held online, was played at a rapid time control, and, the most marked difference of all, according to so-called “Varied Baseline” rules. This means that instead of the games beginning from the usual starting position, pieces are randomly shuffled at the start, so, apart from the fact that the eight pawns on each side retain their normal formation, the pieces arrayed behind them can end up on any initial square.

Given the Covid-19 crisis, online chess, as I have argued frequently in this column, certainly represents the mass involvement future of chess. Indeed, Kasparov claimed to have enjoyed the experience, in spite of performing poorly, with three losses, five draws and just one win. In one horrific case (see the loss against Caruana at the end of this column) Kasparov simply blundered a piece after losing control of his mouse. Of course, I personally regard this Varied Baseline or shuffle chess variation on the standard game as a heretical abomination to be cursed, condemned and anathematised. Why do elite Grandmasters dignify shuffle chess with their attention? Could it be the lure of gold, or, more plausibly, the belief that disrupting the familiar start position might somehow level the playing field?

If the need arises to exercise the chess-playing brain in new and exciting ways, then I recommend taking up the oriental chess variations, Xiang Qi (Chinese chess) or Shogi (Japanese chess), which have respected cultural pedigree, rather than the relatively recent perversion that is shuffle chess.

But was this wretched deviation from true chess the cause of Kasparov’s debacle? Was it his relative lack of experience over the years since his ostensible retirement in 2005? Was it the fast time limit? Or can his setback be attributed to the fact that the ex-World Champion is almost twice as old as most of the other competitors?

Many still believe that our mental capacity automatically declines as we age, with brain cells dying off daily throughout life. In this view, brain power diminishes with age, until finally, if you live long enough, you inevitably submerge into senility.

Against this gloomy prognosis, consider this — our minds/intellect/intelligence do not consist of a limited number of brain “cells”, which die daily and cannot be renewed. The abilities of that incredible  (1.6kg) bio-computer in your head arise from the number of interconnections made between those cells; and that number is essentially infinite in its growth potential.

IQ testing first began with the French psychologist Alfred Binet in 1905 and early studies, that compared older and younger groups, tended to demonstrate that the latter were far more intelligent. Therefore, he concluded, mental functioning declines with age.

Such studies were known as cross-sectional and were carried out in a very simple fashion — in fact too simple. Two groups, one of older people and one of younger, were each given a time-limited IQ test. But a new factor entered when the pressure of the time limit was removed. Older people took a little longer, but gained appreciably improved results, quite comparable with those of the younger groups. The extra time needed was accounted for by two facts — the older people were unfamiliar with the type of tests used, which were familiar to younger people; and the older peoples’ brains contained more years of experience and therefore had more information to process when considering the questions.

Eventually, the longitudinal type of psychometric test was developed, whereby tests took place over a subject annually for many years, comparing the results of the same people against themselves. In many ways their results improved with time.

Professor David Suzuki, a geneticist at the University of Columbia, has persuasively argued that although genes do play a fundamental role in determining human character: “The really important genes are not the ones which tell us what to do, but the ones that give us the ability to change behaviour in response to our environment”. In other words, there are genes that create what we recognise as free will. Professor Suzuki claims that the whole evolution of higher mammals is the story of genes handing over control to the brain, so that people have become more and more capable of behaving independently of their genes.

The contradiction between free will and determinism is one that has run throughout philosophical debate from early times to our own, taking on different forms at different stages. A celebrated passage from Milton’s Paradise Lost sets out the problems. The fallen angels, cast into the pit of hell by the Almighty, ruminate on how they got into that situation:

Others apart sat on a hill retir’d
In thoughts more elevate and reason’d high
Of Providence, Foreknowledge, Will and Fate
Fixed Fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute,
And found no end in wandering mazes lost.”

The German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646 – 1716) for example, articulated the view that circumstances are ruled by absolute logical necessity; everything that happens is a manifestation of God’s nature, and it is logically impossible that events should be other than they are. In my estimation, Leibniz scores highly, since he once wrote that he approved of rational games, such as chess, for they helped to perfect the art of thinking.

Leibniz essentially promulgated a creed of optimism, but his Theodicy of 1709, in which he expressed his views about the nature of evil, was satirised mercilessly, and quite possibly somewhat unfairly, in the person of Dr. Pangloss, in Voltaire’s Candide. A Panglossian formulation would typically go: “everything is for the best, in this best of all possible worlds,” and this while Pangloss and his companions were facing a multitude of sequential disasters, such as being caught in shipwrecks, captured by pirates, partially eaten alive or escaping from the great earthquake of 1755 in Lisbon. It’s the best of all possible worlds, selon Pangloss, because there is no alternative. This philosophical viewpoint was succinctly, and without a hint of irony or satire, expressed by Alexander Pope in his Essay on Man of 1734:

All nature is but art, Unknown to thee,
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see
All discord, harmony not understood
All partial evil, universal good.
And, spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite,
One truth is clear, whatever is, is right.”

Others, notably Voltaire, followed by every subsequent slave abolitionist, social improver or revolutionary, would have been appalled by the postulation of a rigidly deterministic framework, one that seems to place us in a clockwork universe, where “God” releases the spring at the start of time and we all shuffle along pre-determined paths, until that spring finally winds down.

A different aspect of this argument is the “Nature vs. Nurture” debate. Are we all little more than a distillation of the genetic material of our forebears, or are we capable of being moulded by the influences to which we are exposed in our own environment? Determinists would probably argue that the most accurate indicator of human potential is the genetic hand dealt to them at conception, and that there is little that can be done to alter this. Clearly, and particularly in terms of physical development, this is going to be an important factor: if the parents are both below average height, their offspring is unlikely to become a basketball champion. In terms of mental development, however, the brain is capable of assimilating phenomenal amounts of information and, the more it is stimulated, the more it will have the potential to achieve at any age. In fact, the brain thrives on stimulation. The more it gets, the more powerfully it evolves, at every stage of its development.

Even the immortal Renaissance painter and sculptor Michelangelo described his work as merely “freeing the image that already existed inside the block of stone”. It is possible to view on-going human potential in the same terms. If you use your brain as it should be used, the scope for developing your brain power is limitless. History offers ample instances of brilliance in life’s later years, from Michelangelo to the indestructible choreographer Martha Graham. The key factors include:

Staying socially involved: among those who decline, deterioration is most rapid in older people who withdraw from life.

Being mentally active: well-educated people who continue their intellectual interests tend to increase their verbal intelligence through old age.

Having a flexible personality is important: one study found that people most able to tolerate ambiguity and enjoy new experiences in middle age, maintained their mental alertness best through old age.

Indeed, much that we learn from great creative minds, contradicts the notion that brain power automatically diminishes with age. Interestingly, the work of the acknowledged geniuses tended to improve as they grew older. This was the case with Goethe, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Michelangelo, Verdi… In many instances, their supreme masterpiece was their final work, produced in old age. Thus Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is regarded as more impressive than his First Symphony. The same might be said of Mahler’s Tenth when compared with his First, while Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest, is deeper and richer than his early effort, Pericles Prince of Tyre (which Heminges and Condell had the instinctive good taste to omit from The First Folio).

Multiple evidence indicates that by using the brain well and properly as you get older, you physically change it, improving and stream­lining its synaptic connections and hence its power of association. The autopsy on Einstein’s brain after his death is a case in point. Einstein’s brain revealed that it contained 400 per cent more glial cells than the norm. Since these cells specifically aid interconnectivity in the brain circuits, the effect would have been to boost his power of association, between apparently separate items, far beyond the average. Of course Einstein may have been sui generis in this respect, but it is an encouraging pointer for less exceptional mortals.

In fact, far from the brain cells dying off with age, their synaptic connections can be physically improved by proper exercise of the brain. Constant challenge and the solving of problems will physically improve your brain.

Having dealt with physical stimulation, and stressed the little-recognised fact that the brain is actually part of the body, we move on to the vital area of mental stimulation. One important branch of this comprises mind sports, brain-teasers and puzzles.

On 21 January 1995 the Daily Telegraph published an article stating that its readers were exhibiting an insatiable demand for items such as these, as expressed in their reader mailbag; accordingly, from that date it appointed a full-time Mind Games Editor and now regularly devotes an entire page to the topic. Meanwhile, the Times went on to publish bridge and chess articles every day, the latter formerly written by… chess Grand Master Ray Keene… before I switched to writing for TheArticle.

How can you increase your creativity? Most over-forties are widely expected to be suffering from a lessening of their creative drive. It is a commonplace of Academia that no worthwhile research in mathematics, for example, is done after the age of 26. In fact, most people are locked into a negative spiral regarding creativity, falsely believing that the higher the number of ideas generated, the more the quality deteriorates i.e., as quantity increases, quality decreases.

Memory systems can be adapted to simple and effective everyday use. These include the “memory theatre” or memory palace, and my colleague Tony Buzan’s patent speciality, the colourful Mind Map, which helps you to remember complex formulas, lists, lecture material or notes for tests, exams or presentations. The Mind Map is fun and exciting, as well as extremely useful.

Mind games, and chess in particular, have always been regarded as important. Throughout the history of culture, prowess at mind games has been associated with intelligence in general; and mind games have an extraordinary pedigree. According to Dr. Irving Finkel of the Western Asiatic Antiquities Department at The British Museum, game boards have been discovered in Palestine and Jordan dating back to Neolithic times, around 7,000 years BC. Astoundingly, this predates our current knowledge of when writing and pottery were introduced in those societies. Since many of the board games, such as Pharaohnic Sennet or the Royal Game of the lost city of Ur, were found in tombs, it is likely that the shades of the departed had to play a game with the gods of the underworld to ensure safe conduct into the after-life. Board games are no longer regarded as a sort of IQ test for the dead, but they do retain their potency as symbols of intelligence.

My conclusion is that chess strength and mental strength in general, with due deference to the Leibniz dictum concerning rational games, can be maintained as one ages, but the conditions must be conducive. In my opinion online chess, rapid chess and, in particular , the hated shuffle chess are not helpful, indeed inimical, to the ageing brain. The great Botvinnik, the Red Czar of Soviet chess, produced some of his most creative masterpieces in his mid- to late-fifties. Botvinnik attained the perihelion of his chess brilliance when, at the age of fifty, he wrested the World Championship in 1961 from that coruscating tactician Mikhail Tal, who was a quarter of a century his junior!

Another World Champion, Emanuel Lasker, scored arguably his most impressive tournament victory at New York in 1924 aged 56; Viktor Korchnoi qualified for the World Championship final when over fifty, while Vassily Smyslov reached the final of the World Championship Candidates Tournament in 1984 at the age of 63. The key, as noted above in the IQ tests, is that more time for profound thought is required as one ages, and if granted, the greatest heights of creative genius can still be attained. I am all in favour of popularising chess online and reaching vast audiences, such as the 70 million for the recent online chess Olympiad. It should, though, be noted that the triumphs of Botvinnik, Lasker, Korchnoi and Smyslov, were all achieved with hours to finish the games, not minutes, as has recently been the case

This week’s games include three of the supreme masterpieces of chess strategy, carried out by Mikhail Botvinnik (1911-1995) in his fifties: Botvinnik vs. Tal (1961), Botvinnik vs. Keres (1966), and Botvinnik vs. Portisch (1968).

It is worth noting the spectacular rook sacrifices with which Botvinnik delivers the death blow against both Keres and Portisch.

Further, here is the dreadful debacle suffered by Garry Kasparov aged 57 against Caruana in 2020, aged 28, during the recent shuffle chess fiasco. Botvinnik, Kasparov’s erstwhile mentor, would be turning in his grave.

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