The human brain — and the sea

In a previous column I cited Goethe’s impressive description of chess as “the touchstone of the intellect”.

This quotation is firmly grounded in the verifiable text of Goethe’s play “Goetz von Berlichingen.” An equally flattering dictum, that chess is the “gymnasium of the mind”, has variously been attributed to Blaise Pascal, Gottfried Leibnitz and Vladimir Ilych Lenin, though no clear source has ever been identified for any of those three. More likely is that this particular complimentary phrase was first coined in the late 18th/early 19th century by a relatively obscure chess writer called Peter Pratt. Certainly, chess has now been recognised by scientists, such as Professor Joe Verghese, from the Albert Einstein Institute in New York, as a valid activity for improving mental agility. As that great English chess writer and champion, Victorian polymath Howard Staunton opined, chess is the most fitting recreation for those of genius.

Following on my piece mentioning theories of evolution last week, comparing Darwinism with rival explanations, I have now been contacted by my friend of many years, the eminent academic, writer and lover of chess, Professor Michael A. Crawford.

Having just celebrated his 90th birthday, Michael is one of the fittest people I know, both mentally and physically. Recipient of The Order of the Rising Sun Medal, awarded by the Emperor of Japan no less, also Director of the Institute of Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition at London’s Imperial College, Prof Crawford has expressed his fears to me concerning the threat posed by what he considers to be a general global downturn in intelligence. There are plans to publish his detailed warnings in a forthcoming book, The Brain Under Siege, which I have been privileged to see pre-publication. In it, Crawford, a world leader in brain nutrition, explains why the Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) inherent in marine based foods is vital for maintaining brain function. Cow’s milk may be good for building bulky mammalian bodies, but it does little to nourish the little grey cells upon which humans, and particularly chess players, rely.  

I am indebted to Prof Crawford for his insights, upon which I have based much of the argument this week. The rise in mental ill-health is, according to Crawford, a far graver menace to the survival of humanity than the climate change, so loudly trumpeted by, for example, activist Greta Thunberg. 

Mental health, or otherwise, is one of Nature’s ways of testing evolutionary products that first come to dominance and are then seen to their end. Identified by geological period, the five main extinctions of the past, Ordovician, Devonian, Permian, Triassic and Cretaceous, have all been triggered by the conditions of existence, one way or another, but this coming one would, in Crawford’s dystopian scenario, be rather unique: it would be self-inflicted.

That particular scenario being enacted involves a form of destruction, with no thought for the needs to support the very specific nutrition of the brain, leading to declining mental health and thus diminishing IQ. It is becoming a kind of self-inflicted lobotomy.  

After the Second World War, the practice of lobotomy became widespread, publicised, for example, by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) a novel written by Ken Kesey set in a psychiatric hospital, and subsequently made into the multiple Oscar winning film. Lobotomy also hung like the Sword of Damocles over the heroine of Tennessee William’s Grand Guignol theatrical piece, “Suddenly Last Summer”, with its horrific description of the slaughter of baby turtles in the Encantadas (aka Galapagos) and the ritualistic cannibalisation of the flamboyant anti-hero, Cousin Sebastian. 

Lobotomy was widely practised for more than two decades as a treatment for schizophrenia, manic depression and bipolar disorder, among other mental illnesses. One medic alone carried out 50,000 lobotomies. Astonishingly the Portuguese neurologist Egas Moniz, the initiator of the technique, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1949. Yet this was surgery which resulted in traumatised individuals being unable to care for themselves and thus reduced to a largely vegetative state. 

The same title (One Flew Over…) adorned a Broadway presentation of the book. Kirk Douglas bought the film rights and Broadway theatre was followed by the famous film from 1975, in which a totally sane misfit in the psychiatric hospital — played by Jack Nicholson — ends up being lobotomised. The film exposed the horror of lobotomy and was only the second to win all five major Academy Awards. The first had been the 1934 Frank Capra movie, “It Happened One Night”. 

Best film, best actors… triumphant across the entire spectrum of Hollywood accolades, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is firmly anchored in a literary tradition, which includes the “Marat/Sade” of Peter Weiss, “The Physicists of Friedrich Durrenmatt” and Harold Pinter’s “The Hothouse”, in which the setting of a lunatic asylum provides ammunition for devastating social criticism. 

The film also portrayed the abuse of authority and the connivance of so many, with doubtless little thought, in an unjust iron rule and domination over those too helpless to resist. 

Much the same would have applied to the Nuremberg psychiatrists at the command of those with the mindset and goal of creating the purified race, the absolute antithesis of the civilising force present in the works of Goethe, Schiller, Nietzsche and Stefan Zweig.

Nazi doctors were responsible for liquidating 167,000 psychiatric patients in the interests of purification. Rather than the Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics, this represented the elimination of them, by brute force. 

Still even today, there is a stigma attached to mental illness. We have a better understanding of the causes, and much of it is caused by conditions of existence, such as a poor diet, lacking in DHA and EPA (eicosapentaenoicacid). These are the essential building blocks of the human brain and are found in marine-based nutrition, in itself, the vital element of early planetary life, enabling both intelligent life, and the ability to see, to come into being.

However, we continue to struggle to help those afflicted. For decades that stigma and lack of attention have led to the rise in mental ill-health. It is now the most costly NHS burden, greater in the United Kingdom, for example, than that of heart disease and cancer combined. A staggering figure indeed. 

Mental ill-health is the single largest cause of disability in the UK and contributes up to 22 per cent of the total burden. The wider economic costs of mental illness in England alone are £105.2 billion per annum and rising. These figures are also typical of the situation worldwide. 

In Prof Crawford’s apocalyptic worst case scenario, if nothing is done to improve nutrition and stimulate the brain, then once we are gone perhaps the dolphins, who have identical bones to those of the human hand in their flippers, as well as vestigial legs during embryonic development, will turn their attention to the vacant seashore, to which natural abundance will have returned with a vengeance. 

A case in point is the landscape surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear plant, which suffered a cataclysmic meltdown in 1986. Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov donated much of their prize money from the 1986 world chess championship in London to the Chernobyl relief fund. Evacuated by humans, who abandoned all local cities and industrial installations, the Chernobyl region swiftly and seamlessly reverted to what might be compared to a pre-lapsarian state of natural fertility and abundant wildlife. 

All this might sound like a script from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where humans are third in planetary intelligence behind dolphins and mice, but it should be remembered that whales, before they became aquatic, were both terrestrial and ambulatory. 

On venturing to approach land, once again, these clever cetaceans will gain access to a calcium-rich diet, their leg and arm bones will lengthen, hands and feet will re-appear, and once they learn to sleep on land, there will be no going back. Instead of putting half their brain to sleep and operating on the other half, as dolphins do now in their ocean home, they will be able to let the whole brain sleep and then have the full power of all 1.7Kg cranial capacity swing into operation on awakening. With the number of neurones and synapses expanding in a multi-logarithmic manner with brain size, the difference between the dolphinian 1.7Kg and our dwindling 1.3Kg is enormous. Maybe this is what Nature is waiting for! 

Compare this to the approximate 450g brain of a cow in relation to body size and you can see the importance of our brain’s size. 

In order to avoid such disasters, we need to clean the estuaries and coastlines and restore the oceans and their productivity. We also need to devise popular methods of enhancing general human intelligence. With the threatened decline in mental health, time is running out. Nature is in the wings waiting for the day of the dolphins. 

So, to me at least, the answer is clear. Apart from my reservations about training our prison population to become more intelligent, it is time to start promoting mind-strengthening activities on a truly global scale.

Of course, I recommend chess as the most readily available, enjoyable and cost effective instrument to achieve this goal. Statistics indicate that there are already 600,000,000 committed chess fans around the world, not to mention the vast additional numbers who are devoted to similarly mind expanding Neurone connection creating games, such as Go (or Wei Chi), Shogi (Japanese chess), and Xiang Qi (Chinese chess). 

In this campaign, the Internet, propelled by the various Covid-19 lockdowns, is playing a vital role. Chess is being played by millions more online 24/7, now from the corona-free safety of peoples’ own homes, rather than in mass public tournaments. Meanwhile, Grandmaster chess events, and even a vast international online chess team competition, are now becoming commonplace. As I write, for example, just one website,, has enlisted a staggering 40,871,695 members, with 5,281,304 separate games of chess being played online every day… and all these numbers are increasing. 

This week’s game, Ivanchuck v Carlsen is from the online fourth leg of the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour, in progress as I write, with a one million US dollar prize fund. Such huge prizes are now becoming commonplace. These munificent rewards for top exponents of the art and science of chess can easily be supported by the increased numbers of paying subscribers who, as can be seen from the figures above, now flock in droves to watch the live games between their favourite Titans. As a bonus for the spectating millions, all such clashes are standardly furnished with instant commentary from experts, such as Grandmaster Daniel King, author of the Sultan Khan biography and the enterprising and entertaining Hungarian Anna Rudolf, also a Grandmaster and a leading light of the new brand of female commentators, which includes Tanya Sachdev from India and our own Jovanka Houska. 

In the following game, White appears to be pressing the reigning World Champion, but then falls victim to a back rank tactical blow of Mephistophelian proportions. 

The Brain under Siege, by Michael Crawford and David Marsh, will be published next year by Filament Press

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