If you want to read a really interesting book, try The Defense by Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov said it was about a man crushed by his own genius. I’d say it’s ab0ut the way a person can be subsumed and ultimately consumed by the very thing they are designed to do well, and about the airy insubstantiality of what we think of as ‘mind’. For Aleksandr Ivanovich Luzhin, the awkward and unattractive young chess-master, reality begins to fade as life morphs into an unceasing and unwinnable game of chess.
Years ago I worked at a nuclear power station. The dangerous items, fuel rods, were arrayed vertically, making a rather beautiful honeycomb pattern inside a gigantic, thickly-walled pressure vessel. We visualise our minds as containers, and our skulls as the walls, and take it for granted that our that our weirdest fantasies and obsessions are safely contained within. Then a change happens – maybe only a slight change, something that upsets the delicately balanced interrelationship between “in here” and “out there”, and it becomes apparent that the walls are a largely an illusion; nothing is entirely or perpetually contained; we are dreaming our dreams as our dreams are dreaming us. The two worlds are one.
I have seen this happen with my mother – seen the contents of her subconscious becoming real to her – thoughts turning into voices – fears turning into conspirators lurking just behind the wall or just outside the window, standing in the night-time garden, silent behind drawn curtains. I have seen her sinking into this world, increasingly distracted by it.
And as yet we know of no way to maintain our grip on reality. We just hope it’ll happen to someone else. However, it’s possible that chess – and mental exertion generally – though the undoing of poor Luzhin, could be the saving of us. I been reading a New Scientist article on the subject by Lisa Melton. It’s something called cognitive reserve. People who are more intelligent, or who at any rate live more intellectually stimulating lives, appear protected from the mental decline that comes with age. Such people are vulnerable to all the usual diseases of decline – Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis, but notice the effects less and later, if at all. They also, apparently, recover more quickly from stroke, head injury, intoxication and poisoning with neurotoxins. What sort of experiment did they come up with to test that, I wonder?
So, there’s a bit of good news. Cognitive reserve isn’t something you are just lucky enough to be born with, it’s something you can build up. Even if you weren’t lucky enough to have a stimulating job or a good education, you can challenge your mind in any number of ways. Just reading, is one way. Apparently that business of not being able to teach an old dog new tricks – largely untrue. That’s more to do with a loss of confidence. Continuing to take an interest, interact with friends and acquire new skills – plus not allowing yourself to turn into a couch potato – might be the best way of ‘keeping it together’ into old, old age!