Multiple Intelligences in Old Age:Where did the Spin Begin?


My last 60 years in cognitive gerontology have been very happy and interesting but this long perspective has drawbacks. New researchers recycle confused old ideas and new journalists enthusiastically spin their muddles. A well-conducted and analysed study by Hartshorne &  Germine [1] again assures us that, as we have known for 70 years,  our scores on simple problems of the sort used in “intelligence tests” [2] peak in our mid- twenties and then decline. This is not the best possible news but panic is unnecessary because these losses are small and slow [3]. Also throughout our lives we continue to learn useful new skills that we can practice and keep in old age [4]. Hartshorne and Germine try to cheer us up further with reliable new data which, they claim, shows that we have different kinds of intelligence and that only some of these fade early while others are ripe autumnal fruits of maturing minds.  I should be  thrilled by this, or by any suggestion that some of my abilities might decay slower than I fear. What is it about Hartshorne and Germine’s well-written paper that makes me  irritated and depressed?

Throughout our working lives my colleagues and I have lived with slurs that psychology is a non-science (or, rudely, nonsense) because the results of our “so called” experiments lead to no reliable conclusions. This has not just been a mortification  in pub bars and at dinner parties but a threat to our livelihood. During the 1980’s Sir Keith Joseph, Margaret Thatcher’s scarily clever Secretary of State for Education and Science, publicly maintained that while proper sciences like Physics, Chemistry, Medicine or Biology continually progress from incrementing bodies of reliable knowledge psychology and other “social sciences” are not “cumulative” because they endlessly rehearse the same arguments from unconvincing data. This is a costly bad rep. Unfortunately I think that Germine and Hartshorne’s breathlessness at discovering late maturing “face recognition intelligence” illustrates that bad old Sir Keith had a point.

A chronic problem while doing psychology is that we try to find quantifiable descriptions and precise explanations of our feelings, capabilities and everyday experience but, for thousands of years, this entire territory has already been thoroughly mapped in everyday language.  In common conversation the rich vagueness of words like “intelligence” allows illuminating ambiguity and  metaphors so that it is quite in order, and even helpful to speak of “chess intelligence”, “emotional intelligence” or “soccer intelligence” and we all know exactly what is going on when we do this. In psychology the word has a less generous and scintillating penumbra of meaning. Binet [2] first showed that the speed with which children can solve simple but unfamiliar problems very strongly predicts how well they will do at school, even at subjects that they have not yet attempted. Hundreds of convincing studies continue to find that, at any age, tests that measure speed of problem solving are practically useful because they identify individuals who can learn new mental skills faster and perform them better than others can. To call this ability to solve simple problems quickly “intelligence”, and so to call particular sets of simple problems “intelligence tests” has been an irresistible, tedious mistake. Wiser researchers, like Charles Spearman spoke of  “gf”, (“general fluid ability”) to signal that it is a capacity associated with better performance on very many different kinds of mental tasks and also that it is a statistical construct that has been defined by  factor analyses conducted to find common variance between  the scores that thousands of different people achieve on different sets of problems. Further work found that peoples’ scores for geometric and symbolic problems are strongly, but incompletely related to their success on problems expressed in words and that men, on average, score slightly higher than women on spatial tests. To compare scores on these different kinds of tests is reasonable because in both cases the problems are chosen to be sufficiently novel that peoples’ results are unlikely to be affected by their different, previous experiences. Other contrasts between scores on different kinds of tests cannot be interpreted in the same way.  Women often have larger and more precise vocabularies than men and both sexes can keep, or even increase their stocks of words in old age. Since all words must be learned it is not surprising that interest in  new words might differ between genders or that vocabulary takes years to peak.

John Horn and Raymond Cattell [5] were among the first to articulate this difference between the ability to solve many different kinds of novel problems and to learn new things, which they termed “fluid intelligence”, and the possession of  stocks of words, social skills and, by implication, gradually acquired knowledge of faces which they termed “crystallised intelligence”. To call our mental dictionaries and thesauruses “crystallised verbal intelligence” was irresistible, but a bamboozlement. Using the same, richly vague common-language word “intelligence”  for both the ability to process  and learn new information and for deployment of  learned stocks of familiar information has caused banal category confusions. A helpful analogy for the contrast between “fluid intelligence” and “verbal intelligence” is that while the speed and processer bandwidth of a computer will limit how rapidly it can enter and compute with new information of any kind the capacity of the memory in which it stores the particular programs and information that it needs to do a specific task is an entirely different benchmark characteristic, – both in terms of hardware and in terms of function.  I know of no pub or bar in the world in which fellow-drinkers would fail to recognise  the  distinction between our ability to do particular things that we have spent years learning how to do well, and our efficiency at learning any new thing. After all, we barflies have been talking about ourselves and each other for thousands of years. None of us would be surprised to be told that peak ability at “vocabulary skills” or “face recognition” or “people skills” (aka “emotional intelligence”) may take extra years to attain because they require decades of encounters with words, people and faces.

Why do able and methodologically sophisticated psychologists like Hartshorne and Germine gloss this trite distinction? Jim Coyne and other self-styled “activists” in the pursuit of error and obscurantism in science draw attention to the powerful market-forces that drive academic journals to prefer papers that are likely to gain media attention over those that offer undramatic, but in Sir Keith Joseph’s language “cumulative” knowledge about ourselves. Now journals ferociously compete with each other for reputation, and so sales.  The currency of reputation is “impact factors” derived from numbers of citations of published articles. Media attention to journal articles boosts citations so that preferring articles with “media appeal”  has become a potent weapon in Journal-Marketing. Any repeat of a hackneyed old result can be spun. Since the careers of scientists also depend on citations Hartshorne and Germaine may well be pleased at media attention. In their particular case an able journalist, Kayt Sukel [ 6 ]  has behaved impeccably. She not only  mentions the Horne and Cattell work but sought and quotes advice from  a formidable authority, Ulrich Maier, currently Editor of “Psychology and Aging” who said exactly the right thing:  he found  Hartshorne  and Germine’s  findings unsurprising because decades of work since the 1930’s  [ 6 ] has shown that both outstanding and  mediocre scientists, literary figures, musicians and artists, as well and bankers and business managers, reach their various peaks of performance in their professions at different ages.  Understandably Sukel simply offers Maier’s tolerant ennui and Germaine and Hartshorne’s enthusiasm without sharpening a point by contrasting them. An article that simply said “Old idea checks out again” would hardly be widely noticed.

It is not helpful to ask “Where did the spin begin?”. The pass was already sold once Binet and every psychologist adopted the word “intelligence”. Horn and Cattell made a useful distinction between the age-fragility  of innate abilities and the durability of learned skills but fumbled this by using the same, richly imprecise, word “intelligence” for both. So my old colleagues and I have stood for decades  in the shabby little  village fairground of our subject watching the same tatty old misconceptions going  around and coming  around like the wooden animals on Rilke’s carousel – the horses, the  lion, the deer and every now and again this same battered old  white elephant [7].

white elewphant

  1. Hartshorne, J. K & Germine, L.T. (2015).When does cognitive functioning peak ? The Asynchronous Rise and Fall of Diffeent Cognitive Abilities across the Lifespan.Psychological Science, March 13 2015 pp 1-11.
  2. Binet, A., & Simon, T. (1916).The development of intelligence in children: The Binet-Simon Scale (No. 11). Williams & Wilkins Company
  3. g. see review in Ch 2 in Patrick Rabbitt,  “The Aging Mind: An owner’s manual”. (2015) Routledge, London and New York.
  4. see review in Ch 17 in Patrick Rabbitt “The Aging Mind: An Owner’s manual” (2015) Routledge, London and New York.
  5. . Horn, J. L., & Cattell, R. B. (1966). Refinement and test of the theory of fluid and crystallized general intelligences.Journal of educational psychology57 (5), 253.
  6. Sukel, Kayt, March 26 2015
  7. Mit einem Dach und seinem Schatten dreht
    sich eine kleine Weile der Bestand
    von bunten Pferden, alle aus dem Land,
    das lange zögert, eh es untergeht.
    Zwar manche sind an Wagen angespannt,
    doch alle haben Mut in ihren Mienen;
    ein böser roter Löwe geht mit ihnen
    und dann und wann ein weißer Elefant.
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Age, Committees and the Power-point Revolution

During fifty years of paid employment I became blasé about Committee Meetings but in retirement I forgot many things I learned in cheerless rooms: guessing which curly-edged sandwiches have least-worst fillings;  the ritual self-positioning of Committee-members in their, obscurely, favoured seats; their preliminary interventions advertising who they are, what they know and how extraordinarily well they know it; differences between individuals’ theoretical and practical grasp of affability skills; the honed geniality of chairpersons; manic fixed beaming of some participants and poker-faces of others.
Unexpectedly I have again attended some meetings. Things have changed. Now I am visibly old  people are disconcertingly helpful. If they find me lurking in corridors searching for the Committee-Room they do not ask where I want to go but simply tell me where the toilets are. They explain lift-buttons to me. They do not jostle me at the sandwich table but give me too many paper-plates. They smile kindly as I fumble in my rucksack for my tatty notebook, the one ballpoint of four that still works and my two pairs of spectacles – one for writing and the other for screen watching. Then, gradually, boredom seeps from the buttocks up the spine and  neck to the brain bringing subtle and particular flavours of ennuis distilled from a lifetime of forgotten meetings. But a dazzling new thing has happened while I have been away: The Power – Point Revolution !
Back in the day power-point slides, at least those used by respectable cognitive-aging persons, were simple black-on-white lists of bullet points to remind us what to say next rather than to distract  audiences from our verbatim rehearsal of exactly the same words. Power-Point virtuosi, often women, might introduce sprigs of flowers or flowing pastel smears around their text. Brasher mavens caused arrows to prance between numbers or bits of text to drop suddenly into the screen, often with loud twangs. Graphs were very simple and often wonky, encouraging audience participation with demands for return to slide 93 (where error bars had been forgotten or axes reversed so that the data precisely contradicted the speaker’s argument). Tables were grey chicken-wire-fences of tiny illegible numbers. But  Now! A New Age has dawned, all is changed utterly, and a terrible beauty is born. To de-construct these astonishing changes we use techniques borrowed from Art Historians.
Hindsight reveals a transitional period from bullet-points and bad graphs to “Mature Early Power Point”. This  reached its apogee of complexity with Structural Equation Model Diagrams. Blobs of various shapes, some designating particular classes of variables and some intriguingly arbitrary were each labelled in tiny print and joined by arrows whose directions were critical to  arguments that could alternatively be expressed in equations, numbers or even words. Arrows were often  labelled with very faint numbers indicating relative weights. Slides increased in complexity until their  full flowering in a phase that my colleague Cameron Camp termed  “Thanksgiving Turkey School”.  At this point Power-Point theory moved beyond any pretence that  slides are simplified and condensed representations of arguments. In what we may call the “Transitional Pre-Contemporary Period” divorce of blob-shape from variable class became  complete; all arrows were logically reversible in direction though, with coy playfulness, they were still given single barbed heads; complete omission of numbers signalled disdain for quantification. To emphasise the new freedom diagrams sometimes, with charming caprice, were split into two or more independent, unconnected sections.

As with all  Art Movements new ambitions required a new vocabulary. Increasing use of words such as “Eudaimonic” has became a signature of the period. Unwary observers will decode “Eu” as a prefix meaning good, or pleasant, and “daimons” as subordinate characters in a Harry Potter Saga. Not so! The cunning authors have set a witty trap! A recent source explains “ Some researchers claim that eudaimonic well-being is best achieved through personal development and growth , others through finding meaning in their lives. One way or another, they agree that there must be something else out there in addition to pure pleasure and happiness.” [1]
In other words Contemporary power-point slides now try to express the numinous or indefinable. The core of the Power-Point Revolution is that slides no longer aim to illustrate or reference any argument. We transcend weary convention to gallantly eff the ineffable.
The next, Post-Transitional, phase, we  provisionally call “Early Mandala” [2]. This  taps deep roots in the  the human psyche. For example, very long ago I used to decorate my school notebooks with” Pat Rabbitt, 272 The Tideway, Rochester, Kent, England, United Kingdom, Europe, The World, The Solar System, Nearest Galaxy to Andromeda, The Universe” ( The Multiverse was not then imagined). Post-transitional slides cheekily retain the refreshingly naivety of childish scribblings.. An early example of  this genre is a  “Pre-concentric” or “Cascade Mandala” slide  from NICE [3] on inequalities of population health. This  is clearly “British School”: whimsically top-down from  general to enfold  and even to cuddle particular points:


Health Inequalities and Population Health

A currently dominant trend shifts from British Cascade to  “Tibetan  School” with concentric circles with embedded legends. A fine recent “Model” (Mandalas are always called “Models”, except when they are diffidently called “Frameworks”) is a diagram by Bath and North East Somerset Council in a document dealing on Provision of Public Toilets [4].


Bath Toilet Mandala

This is a breathtakingly complete depiction of a Total Universe of Public Toilet Provision! The global ecosystem with its hints of possible climate change and their effects on global biodiversity envelops concentric circles of increasing particularity until we reach the still centre of “People”, with their defining qualities of Age, Sex and genetic diversity. I am completely convinced of the importance of Age and Sex in toilet provision but less so of Heredity. Nevertheless, we must open our minds to all possibilities of future discoveries. Who knows what Genetics may yet reveal?

It is crucial to grasp that  contemporary Power-Point Mandalas are not  representations of any “things” or “arguments”. A Mandala is, rather, a noumenon, a ding an sich that needs no link to, or constraint by artificial ideas of “reality”. It simultaneously hints at  all, and no, possible interpretations. The text in which the fine Bath and Somerset Toilet Provision Mandala is embedded never refers to it as a scaffold for an argument. The  aim is to convey insights beyond verbal definition: in this case the implication of God-like overview by a benevolent Local Authority.
As always  in Art History we can track emergent themes through temporal and geographical variants. In an  instructive adaptation by the University of New South Wales Social Policy Research Centre [5] the still core of the gyre shows cryptic Words of Power: “Holistic SEWB”. Clockwise arrows in the outer circles do not signify directions of causality or flow of relationships. They are there only to convey dynamism and urgency. Charming homage to Aboriginal dot-paintings and a colour scheme borrowed from yellow and ochre pinjun desert sand are  Australian signatures and by no means accidental attributes of this remarkable “Dreamtime model”:


TristanSchultzArtwork Seven Domains of social and emotional well-being

An example in a brochure by Yukon Wellness California [6] shows how, the outermost circle  wittily recalls and mocks a fusty convention that “directional arrows” signify causal links. Here arrows are replaced  by  brown, khaki and blue diamond shapes, squiggles and semi-circles. So we gently but robustly expose as obsolete the fiction of connected arguments and causality.


holisticmodelwellness-Yukon Wellness California

During years of retirement I have wasted my time by dully continuing to analyse numbers and to write old-fashioned papers about the patterns I find in them. I hope that I am not yet too old to appreciate, and even to adapt to this huge,  enthusiasts might even say “Tectonic” shift in the nature of  representation in my field. I have begun work, as hard as my age allows, on a Universal Reaction Time Mandala with compartments for Simple and Choice RT paradigms, serpentine tracks of repetition and fore-period-duration borrowed from Kalahari Bushman Stone Etchings and, as due homage to Wilhelm Wundt, symbols in Deutsch Schrift symbolising trial – to – trial variability, signal discriminability, and choice of responding limbs. I am at last ready to come out of the closet of humdrum explications of “processes” and “mechanisms” and to dare to depict, in glorious entirety and in many cheerful colours a universe in which Reaction Times simply…… exist ! I shall offer this “Model” gratis for use in Brocuures and grant proposals by Local Governmental Authorities, Boards of School Governors, Big Pharma and miscellaneous Sociologists as a revelation and celebration of how the Science I once practised has been transformed in the few years while I have been distracted from its astonishing progress.

2. Mandala (Sanskrit: मण्डल Maṇḍala, ‘circle’) is a spiritual and ritual symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism, representing the Universe. The basic form of most mandalas is a square with four gates containing a circle with a center point. Each gate is in the general shape of a T. Mandalas often exhibit radial balance.
4. Toilets | Bathnes – Bath & North East Somerset Council

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Hot and Cold in Old Age



Oxford Springs are slow and deceitful – tiny progress cancelled by returns to grey dank – but this April was wonderful. The Met Office says it has been the best ever recorded. I sat and read in the sun on the kitchen roof and saw my extremely eminent neighbour, 50 feet away, cautiously de-hibernate and open his bedroom window for the first time in 5 months. We waved, reaffirming for our 15th time the traditional British Neighbour Spring  Pact: “ Better weather means that our images may more frequently fall  on each other’s retinas but, notwithstanding this, no higher-level perceptual processing shall occur and, unless you or I begin to spontaneously combust, we shall never, ever, attempt conversation.”
Though kitchen-roof-tulips are out May is not yet wonderful. The tulips seem to like rain. I don’t. The Met Office thinks it will soon be warmer, drier and fit for roof-reading again. To prepare for the change I read what I can find about how altering seasons affect oldies like me.
Most Spring Poetry is unhelpful because it bangs on  about young yearnings. Basho is better tuned to geriatric inner weather: “Spring rain leaking through the roof dripping from the wasp’s nest” reminds me to do something about Mason bees excavating the bedroom wall but does not launch my spirit into Vernal Trajectories. “Spring Air, woven moon and plum scent”? A little better, but hardly in Oxford? “Sitting quietly, doing nothing, Spring comes and the grass grows by itself” catches the mood but also reminds me that the lawnmower is rusty. Paraphrased for those who are no longer at his imaginary perpetual “one-and –twenty” Houseman was a gloomy old toad, even in Spring:

“Of my three score years and ten,
Sixty will not come again,
To take from Seventy springs this score,
Only leaves a decade more”.

(OK, OK, Alfred. Just stop going on about it).

Do epidemiology and cognitive gerontology have anything  interesting to say about the way human spirits swing with the seasons?

The German Federal Bureau of Statistics publish data that most North-Northern Hemisphere residents will recognise. Between 1946 and 1995 deaths were most frequent between January and March, fewer during Springs and least in Summers [1]. The analysts speculate that greater mortality was related to lower temperature since it reduced with spread of domestic central heating. There is a well-documented Winter increase in incidence of cardiovascular problems, including myocardial infarctions and Strokes. This is followed by a fall in Spring to a Summer low which is more marked for old than for young [2]. An analysis of Japanese Vital Statistics between 1970 and 1999 sharpened this point by including simultaneous weather conditions. Deaths from infectious and parasitic diseases, tuberculosis; respiratory disease; pneumonia and influenza; heart and cerebrovascular diseases; diabetes;  digestive diseases and accidents all peaked with low temperatures in Winter but Suicides peaked with high temperatures in Spring and Autumn [3]. Italian suicides from 1984 to 1995, (31,771 males and 11984 females) also peaked in Spring and then dropped to an Autumn low for both sexes,- but this was true only for suicides by violent means. Non-violent suicides were evenly spread throughout the year. There were similar numbers of  violent and non-violent suicides but a wider literature suggests that their causes are not the same. Violent suicides seem to be passionate events related to disturbances in relationships at higher temperatures. Non-violent suicides are more often due to other chronic miseries. This story seems plausible but, if it is true, it is odd that the proportion of violent suicides should not decline with age and that seasonal differences in  numbers of violent and non-violent suicides were greater for the old [4].

Seasonal changes affect depression and mood. A small study found that 250 Boston women aged 43 to 72 were more Tense or Anxious, Depressed or Dejected, Angry and Hostile, Tired and Inert and Confused and Bewildered in the Autumn, but much better in the Spring and Summer [5] 400 mgm supplements of Vitamin D  (which we need sunlight to produce) did not help. Differences might also have been associated with opportunities for exercise which followed similar trends. This is important because in the N. Hemisphere winters keep elderly people indoors where they are not only bored and isolated but also inert. A British study found that older people were slightly more miserable in the Autumn and Winter than in the Spring and Summer [6] and cites other studies that have found parallel, but much greater, differences for young women of child bearing age. I am sure that a bleak winter’s day imprisoned at home with one or more infants is far more frustrating than quiet isolation in a warm room with a book or a lap-top. Increases in sadness with onset of Autumn and the progress of winter are common. In extreme Northern latitudes they are sometimes so severe as to qualify for a specific psychiatric diagnosis, “Seasonal Affective Disorder” (SAD). A Swedish review of published studies suggests that, in Sweden, it is common to be glum in Autumn and Winter and that the incidence of the most severe manifestation of glumness, SAD, varies from 0% to 9% and increases the further North you live [7].

So, with the Spring Equinox now well behind us, Northern oldies swing from SAD land into glad warm Summer. We shall read in the warm sun, get out and walk about much more and take the cheering exercise that we have avoided throughout a long dull winter. If we commit suicide there are greater odds that we will go out violently with a bang or a squelch rather than  just a plaintive whimper. With global warming now evident the likelihood of heat waves and other extreme events will surely increase. Will this be a good or bad thing for our survival and morale ?

Blazing Sun

Recent studies anticipate problems for older people. The problems of harsh winter weather are obvious but a Japanese study covering summers of 1968 through 1994  found significant rises in deaths of children and elderly during temperature peaks of 38 deg C or more. I feel that I am more comfortable at high temperatures than most of my friends are, and that a reptilian ability to happily bask has strengthened in old age. I am probably wrong. A small but useful study found that both older and younger people feel most comfortable at temperatures between 20 deg C and 22 deg C but also that the old have problems because their perception of temperature changes is so coarse and sluggish that they may not notice as they gradually chill down – or heat up – outside this range [8]. Analysis of records of elderly patients admitted to a French Hospital emergency department during the 2003 French heatwave found that 42 out of 246 had heat – related illnesses not diagnosed by their physicians and that living in institutional care and taking psychotropic medications were risk factors [9]. A study of heat-stroke deaths in Japan between 1968 and 1994 found that numbers rose sharply when temperatures rose to 38 or above and half were people aged under 4 or over 70.[10] I had been looking forward to The Great Warming, especially in North Oxford, but these numbers, and increases in counts of exotic pollens now wither my hopes.

So, back again to poetry in the hope of some relief from the realisation that when we all begin to freeze or fry we old, and the very young, will suffer before the rest. Robert Frost is not particularly cheerful, but at least is poised and balanced:

Some say our world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favour fire.
But if we have to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

1. Lerchl, A. (1998). Changes in the seasonality of mortality in Germany from 1946 to 1995: the role of temperature. International journal of biometeorology, 42(2), 84-88.
2. Sheth, T., Nair, C., Muller, J., & Yusuf, S. (1999). Increased winter mortality from acute myocardial infarction and stroke: the effect of age. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 33(7), 1916-1919.
3. Nakaji, Shigeyuki, et al. “Seasonal changes in mortality rates from main causes of death in Japan.” European journal of epidemiology 19.10 (2004): 905-913
4. .Preti, A., & Miotto, P. (1998) Seasonality in suicides: the influence of suicide method, gender and age on suicide distribution in Italy Psychiatry Research, 81, 219-231.
5. Harris, S., & Dawson-Hughes, B. (1993). Seasonal mood changes in 250 normal women. Psychiatry research, 49(1), 77-87.
6. Eagles, J. M., McLeod, I. H., & Douglas, A. S. (1997). Seasonal changes in psychological well-being in an elderly population. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 171(1), 53-55.
7. Magnusson, A. (2000). An overview of epidemiological studies on seasonal affective disorder. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 101(3), 176-184.
8. Collins, K. J., Dore, C., Exton-Smith, A. N., Fox, R. H., MacDonald, I. C., & Woodward, P. M. (1977). Accidental hypothermia and impaired temperature homoeostasis in the elderly. BMJ, 1(6057), 353-356.
9. Fish, P. D., Bennett, G. C., & Millard, P. H. (1985). Heatwave morbidity and mortality in old age. Age and ageing, 14(4), 243-245.
10. Nakai, S., Itoh, T., & Morimoto, T. (1999). Deaths from heat-stroke in Japan: 1968–1994. International journal of biometeorology, 43(3), 124-127.

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How to Do Old Age

merry oldies

I meant to post on ways to cheer oneself up in old age, beginning with  the kind of psychotherapy that seems to be  interminably extended conversations. These continue, for an hour on each of most days of the week. The process lasts as long as clients stay solvent and therapists healthy and sane. The post has not come off because of irritation with  recent published memoires of such long intense relationships by some clients and therapists. I began to suspect that both of these groups collaborate  to construct alternative life-stories until they agree on one that “fits”,  hopefully, providing  a plot for a life story that can serve as an explanation, possibly even an excuse, maladaptive behaviour and its miserable consequences. Any relation of these ingenious sagas to reality seems irrelevant and both therapists and patients insist that gains are unquantifiable (except, perhaps, in terms of the therapist’s income). Both parties seem proud of this, perhaps because it invests the transaction with  something numinous and also because it blocks crass evidence-seeking questions such as whether clients who experience such talking therapy get better faster, or more completely that those who do not 1.  Relieved from any obligations to test by evidence  therapeutic relationships can be judged in the same ways as novels or poems: in terms of different levels and kinds of enrichment of experience. Perhaps this is why  many  clients move restlessly on from therapist to therapist and so from one theory of therapy (e.g. Jungian, Freudian, Transactional etc.) to another until they feel that they are getting the best return of interest and comfort for their fees. There  is no clear evidence that any one analytic theory works better than others, but this apparent interchangeability  does not question their validity any more than the fact that individuals prefer some poems or novels to others proves that literary theories are “wrong” or “misguided” or “unscientific”.  Maybe we should agree to use formal techniques of literary criticism to assess the relative values of the life stories that therapists help their patients to weave rather than haggle over “recovery rates” from different therapeutic disciplines. Many of us, certainly I, have had our lives transformed by particular poems and novels. Sometimes even for the better.



Another block to a post on psychotherapy for the old is that I am beginning to think that a better way to learn to manage our attitudes to our lives is from the examples of our friends.  People of my age become increasingly valuable to each other as we grow old together and notice how we each  manage difficulties that we currently share or must anticipate. It would be crass for me to try to list the various ways in which this  helps since I have a direct example from a school-friend who endeda long and  diverse career as a Professor of Political History at the Hague.

“Good to hear from you. .. I am about to join you across the boundary into octogenarianism. That thought has had a deeper effect than I anticipated when considering the next decade. …. such reflection began more than a month ago, when I had to make first us of my help service. One afternoon I had another fall indoors. It was the usual occasion. I was walking with my stick, this time into the bedroom, suddenly felt dizzy and lost my balance. Miraculously, as in all incidents so far, I did not strike any hard object and break anything, but did end up stuck in a foetal position (second childhood?) between the wardrobe, the bed and a bookcase. What distinguished this occasion was that I could not free my legs enough to roll over and crawl to where furniture could be grasped with enough leverage to stand up. On three occasions when this has happened before I have wriggled serpent-like to the front door, managed to get it open, and asked a passer-by to help me up. Now I could use the speaker round my neck, and after about twenty minutes two large, strong young ladies used their key to get in and lifted me up. After checking I was uninjured they left me to experience recovery shaking on the sofa.


Anyway, the result was that I came to the conclusion that moving into a home for the aged with constant supervision might not be as bad as it has hitherto seemed (in 2011 I was in one for four days after an operation in order to recover. It was sociologically fascinating but not decisively attractive). ….. So the next stage will be to find out what I can get. Actually, I still get a weekly outing to do shopping and take a cappucino, thanks to the self-sacrificing Desiree, my partner now for 15 years. However, she actually lives and works in Leiden, so can drive here and back just once a week (a further factor is that she is basically afraid of driving…) She telephones to check on me, but in the absence of family ….. living nearby I really miss someone popping in and seeing how I am and doing things like changing light bulbs. In principle, that is what social services arranges.

On the writing front, my help against becoming totally gaga, writing every morning, has begun to run down. I’ve just finished another novel. It is about what happens to a history lecturer who, while in a long-term coma after a car crash, finds himself in late 19th century London and able to make real his favourite horror stories of the time, featuring Jekyll and Hyde, Frankenstein and Dracula, and play parts in them. For example, he proves that the real-life Jack the Ripper, identity unknown to this day, was in fact Mr Hyde. No pressure intended, but if you might like to read it… On that general front, I fear the writing-to-ward-off-senility device is becoming severely threatened by the knowledge that the chances of getting published are in effect nil. My last attempt to find an agent not so long ago failed once again. Even my ego balks at again taking the self-financing route, though my savings would be up to at least one more venture. The autobiography is currently affected by this mood, although a limited printout for friends only is possible.

That seems more than enough self-pity for now. ….”

On the contrary, my dear old friend, the cool absence of self-pity, the ability to maintain a detached and analytical humour about a bad situation and of ones’ prospects in it, and determination to continue to amuse oneself and others is a better lesson in living than I can find in psychotherapists’ memoires.  Thank you for a master-class in How to do Old Age.


1. To summarise a very large and very convincing literature: They don’t.

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Seeking Joy in Old Age

plane landing witrh palms

In North Europe cold dark February leaches joy from elderly lives. So in Tenerife, every 10 minutes another plane unloads a new cargo of Northern Oldies seeking brief warmth and light but also  hoping for restorative happiness. We crowd down gangways, beam at the unfamiliar sun and then  face the problem of what to do next. Scores of custom-designed oldie-play-areas – “Resort Hotels”- anticipate a future in which a few cheerful, smooth, indigent young people earn a living by cosseting hordes of bewildered, crumpled, solvent elderly. We reach peak satisfaction every morning at primate-paradise breakfasts with omelettes and pancakes and fried eggs on demand and tables stacked with succulent stuff for us to load on plates or secrete  for thrifty lunches. Then the food and crockery begin to disappear and we feel dearth of feasible fun. Shall we bask on sunbeds like disabled dugongs? Pay to be massaged, steamed, and have hot stones laid along our spines? Grab sweets from the reception desk as we exit to streets dulled by daily excursions wandering as mixed pairs  of relatively mobile and optimistic women, each  followed by a despondent man visibly wondering how his life has congealed and nostalgic for a comfy office and secretary  forever lost to him in space and time ? Or sit in bars as bold singletons,  burly, obese males and females flaunting speckled skin and seeking final solutions to the joy problem in huge glasses of mid-morning beer. Once we have got warm for the first time in months can we also manage to get happy?

Old Man in deckchair

Over 2085 years ago Epicurus thought that he had cracked the problem of geriatric joy. Like  contemporary geratro-tourists in Tenerife he believed that since we have just one life the only sensible decision is to spend it as happily as we can. He believed that old age can bring  peak happiness because demands of politics, careers and families have waned, freeing us to pursue the Good Life. His ideas on what constitutes the Good Life were, and still are, misunderstood. Unlike Epicures mis-named after him, or elderly guests at Tenerife resort hotels, he did not think that we can achieve lasting delight by finding and consuming the best of anything that may conceivably cheer us up, especially food and alcohol.  At the entrance to his “garden” which seems to have housed an hospitable commune, a notice read “Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure. The caretaker of this abode, a kindly host, will be ready for you, he will welcome you with bread and serve you water, also in abundance…..”  Epicurus’ sparse surviving writings insist that  the key to enduring happiness is a sufficiency of bread, boiled legumes, water and endless philosophical debate about “the meaning of it all ”.  I like to believe that, in practice, the entertainment in his garden was a little more lavish 1

I have spent far too much time in University common-rooms to buy the idea that, especially when philosophers are present, debates about the meaning of everything spontaneously ignite happiness. Even when the coffee is better than usual and the biscuits are Jammy-Dodgers or Fig Rolls. I do not think that boiled lentils and water would make things any better.  David Klein2, a charming contemporary PR man for Epicurus, describes epiphanies during summer holidays on a Greek Island watching a small group of septuagenarians spend their days at the same table, in the same café playing cards, drinking retzina, scoffing mezzes and gossiping. With respect for Klein’s warm heart, a different café-frequenting philosopher thought that endless time with a few people who soon exhaust all of their anecdotes and opinions would be Hell 3. Another of Klein’s European epiphanies was encountering elderly Frenchmen attain delight while playing petanque. His pleasant Mediterranean images may encourage anyone who ever doubted that some old people can sometimes share bursts of communal contentment or even significant gladness. Some of us would like to hear more from the wives of boules players and barflies.

old men in cafe

Klein makes valid points:  even though many aspects of aging are not very nice, growing old can strip us of burdens of obsolete obligations and ambitions, and futile regret for  “lives that came to nothing, or deeds as well undone ‘til death steps tacitly and takes us where we never see the sun”4. Such thoughts should free us to find new and to rehabilitate neglected sources of joy, or at least of mild contentment. But how to manage this?

As usual, after Philosophers have claimed all the best biscuits in the common room Psychologists rummage left-over crumbs. Between 1939 and 1944 the Harvard University Health Service began the “Grant study of Adult Development” by recruiting 268 undergraduates (including the young John F Kennedy). Between 1940 and 1945 Sheldon Glueck enrolled a further 456 young men from Boston neighbourhoods. 188 members of both groups are still alive in their 80’s and 90’s.  George Valliant has summarised his conclusions from this vast database in his books “Adaptation to Life” and “Triumphs of Experience” 5,6.  :   Health is particularly important and determines happiness and economic success more strongly than genes do. Alcoholism is  destructive of marriages, careers and contentment. Intelligence is a less important predictor of worldly success and happiness than is often supposed. Men who do well in middle age do not necessarily flourish in old age and vice-versa. Recovery from a wretched childhood is difficult but becomes easier with passing years;  a happy childhood is a lifelong advantage; marriages become better when they persist after 70. Being affluent helps.  Valliant’s  most  pleasant discovery  (at least for me) is that elderly Liberals seem to have more and better sex than elderly Republicans. Apart from this last gem I think that I have already worked out all these conclusions for myself without the hassle of running and analysing a 70 year study. I find Valliant’s concluding summary bullet-point endearingly naff:  “Happiness is Love. Full Stop”.

The Harvard study has lasted longer and  probably amassed more disparate details of men’s lives than any other. However it only includes men, is based on small numbers  and, perhaps for this latter reason, the most interesting questions that we might ask of the data are not addressed because there are too few representatives in different categories of persons to make sensible comparisons.  Martin Pinquart7 explored a larger data-base by reviewing findings from 125 different studies.  He concludes that old age seems to be accompanied by a slight decline in happiness (“positive affect”) and a slight increase in unhappiness (“negative affect”). As people age strong emotions, such as being joyously excited or acutely distressed are increasingly replaced by weaker feelings such as relaxation or mild depression. Pinquart acknowledges that in old age we become increasingly likely to experience unavoidable problems with poor health and economic stringencies.   Nobody has ever thanked me for bringing up his findings in conversations about the odds of elderly joy.

Lacey, Smith and Ubel8 used Pete Townsend’s famous line “Hope I Die Before I Get Old; (the things they do seem awful cold)” as the title of a description of a study in which they asked younger and elderly adults how they feel about their present happiness and how they assess the odds of happiness at different times of life. Like Pete Townsend middle-aged adults thought that things will gradually get worse. The already-old agreed that, for most people, things probably do get rather worse as they age but cautioned that they were not speaking for themselves but only for others. Lacey et al point to a paradox of happiness studies: although people of all ages do not think that things get better in old age, responses from successive age-decades suggest that  happiness actually increases after middle age with a possible, slight, decline after the mid 70’s.

This news is mildly reassuring but I have  found nobody who is surprised or excited by it. It confirms that our worst fears about old age are unnecessary (or at least pointless, which is not at all the same thing) and that,  as we continue to survive, things may get better, or at least will probably not become as bad as we fear  unless, and until, we run into unavoidable hard times. It does not tell us what we all deeply, and secretly (for fear of being laughed at) want to know: “What is the best way to live and to be happy, whether in a resort hotel or while trundling through our everyday lives?” Many psychologists have tried to address this by analysing the answers that large numbers of people give to large numbers of quite simplistic questions. This tool does not seem fit for purpose. The excellent “Journal of Happiness studies” has published scores of studies in which people have been asked whether or not they are happy and whether they think that their past or future might have been, or turn out to be better than their present but  I find no answers to the poignant question that we all continue to ask even though we suspect that no answer is possible: “How can I get joyful IMMEDIATELY and go on being happy ever after ? ”

My colleagues and I should not be mocked because our questionnaires and longitudinal studies do not cut the zesty mustard. Philosophers are  luckier because they are free to reach conclusions  without constraint of evidence and, anyhow, tend to divert along dull threads like “What does ‘being happy’ actually mean?” I believe that I have always known when I am “happy” and semantic exercises do not much amuse me or even seem to cheer up my philosophic colleagues. Religious Leaders have always been free to propose any solutions to the Happiness Problem that they care to imagine, and have become experts at marketing their fantasies but, even given these wide opportunities, they are surprisingly evasive. They admit that some who buy into their belief systems may achieve fits of sublime religious rapture but  seem to disapprove of this. The main deal is that their faith can help us to accept everyday unpleasantness and boredom, and even to tolerate excruciations if we accept that these are what a wise and benevolent God has scheduled  for us. Compensating gratification will be delayed but extreme:  an eternity featuring an abundance of virgins (or plums, depending on the translation of the Koran that you choose), or choral singing and harps, or Elysian fields, or delight  in ceaseless, gladsome praise or just Bliss Beyond Understanding (and so, also, conveniently beyond need for description).

heaven's door

“There is a happy land, far, far away! Where we’ll eat bread and jam, three times a day! Oh how we’ll laugh and shout, when the bread and jam’s brought out! We’ll all laugh and shout! Three times a day!”

In contrast Buddhists suggest that the best way to get through life with minimum fret is to be as nice as possible to everybody while learning to desire nothing and so become free from ambitions and regrets. They are pretty cagey about an afterlife. This seems similar to Epicurus’ recommendations, and quite a good idea.

The closest that respectable academic psychologists get to writing recipes for happiness is imagining, and then empirically testing, ways to reduce misery. Specifically, by treating depression, or helping people to recover from disaster, or to cope with uncomfortable lives. I have not previously felt any need to explore this literature because I have led an exceptionally lucky and amusing life during which I have been diverted from worries about attaining true happiness by obsessions with human reaction times and, more recently, with the effects on speed and intelligence of white matter lesions in the brain. My current desire to learn more about how to promote happiness is driven by curiosity rather than necessity (though, of course this may switch at any moment).  I have learned that the best way for me to begin to understand something unfamiliar is to try to discover enough about it to write essays for an imaginary critical audience, just as undergraduates do for their tutors.  So future posts will be my best tries at undergraduate essays on such topics as Mindfulness Meditation, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and other currently fashionable cures for little and large miseries, particularly those that tend to occur in late life. Of course I am very pleased and flattered if anyone reads anything that I write, and  even happier if anyone cares to comment but, for my solipsistic exercises an imaginary audience will do just fine.


  1. It is widely reported that guests in Epicururus’s “garden” also consumed hefty amounts of good wine. He had at least one rich patron who could have provided this, and perhaps some better things than boiled lentils.
  2. David Klein, (2013) “Travels with Epicurus”, One World Publications, by arrangement with Penguin group USA. ISBN 978-1-78074-412-4
  3. J. P Satre (quote from conversation) Hell is Other People.
  4. Apologetically adapted from a verse in A Tocatta of Galuppi’s by Robert Browning
  5. Vaillant, GE (1977),Adaptation to Life, Boston, MA, Little, Brown, 1977 (also Lippincott Williams & Wilkins)  ISBN 0-316-89520-2)
  6. Vaillant, GE (2012),Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study, Belknap Press,ISBN 0-674-05982-4
  7. Pinquart, M. (2001). Age Differences in Perceived Positive Affect, Negative Affect and Affect Balance in Middle and Old Age. Journal of Happiness Studies, 2, pp 375-405.
  8. Lacey, H.P., Smith, D. M., Ubel, P.A. (2006). Hope I die before I get old: Mispredicting Happiness Across the Adult Lifespan. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7, pp 167-182.




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Playing Games in Old Age


Old people pass their time in very different ways. My mornings are glad and confident and some work is still possible.  For long gaps between lunch and gin different solutions must be found. In dank Oxford winters Internet Chess is a fine resource.


old chessplayers

Even after many years  I am still delighted with the idea of playing live opponents  in Brazil, Canada, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia Iran … or in the Philippines – where they seem to be startlingly good.  As dawn and dusk terminators circle the planet people in China and India settle down for their evening games while those in the Middle-East play during their lunch breaks, North and South Americans are waking up and insomniac Australasians still struggle on. Luckily for me the world is full of weak but obsessional players. Sites1 rate  you to play people roughly of your own level so I am  in an undistinguished ruck from which I strive to get promoted. Players can message each-other during games but most are silent after a tentative “Hi” at the beginning and a polite (if often insincere) “gg” (good game) at the end.  Most of us long ago stopped exclaiming on differences in our time zones or weather but some still start brisk conversations, perhaps to distract you from your game rather than from curiosity. Most sites encourage us to provide simple personal details, such as our ages, on public bulletin space.   I recorded my actual age and am often mistaken for a jokey schoolboy feigning senility and offered ponderous patronage by kindly mature players : (“You don’t use your Queen enough” “Opening symmetry is not necessarily good”; “a Bishop Pair always wins”). Usually I am correctly weighed up by fellow geriatrics whether courteously (“Too much time to waste – just like me”) or not (“Get out of the house more, Old Man”). Anonymity has odd effects on interactions. Very rarely even apparently quiet and staid players abruptly begin heckling and abuse for no reason. There are fine moments when you nevertheless beat these trolls but this does not happen often enough. Best to use the site’s blocking facility so you do not play them again. Unexpected kindness is far more frequent – I have often been offered a draw, at some cost to my opponent’s rating,  when I am obviously losing.

You can guess some things about players from the game-names (tags) they give themselves. These are often cryptic (DX1212/A) or actual surnames and initials or nicknames. Sometimes slightly odd like “Brilliant Sunbird” or “ Scintillating Wave”; or jokey/boastful/self-deprecating  (“Grandmaster of the Universe” ); or jokey/threatening “Exterminator”, “Agonyforyou”, “Predator”, “Uloseagane; or embarrassing (”Jesus Loves You”, “God is my Saviour”; “Sword of Islam”, “My Faith – My Life”); Very rarely monikers are sociopathic ( “All Whites Filth”; “Christian Sewer Rats”; “Disgusting Towelheads”) but these are  expurgated by site managers and, of course, if you are prudent you will refuse to play against people who choose them. Though nearly all players are friendly and patient, everyone is enraged by opponents who, if their position goes bad, simply stop moving and let the clock run out. When this happens you can earn a pointless win by stolidly waiting them out or abort and accept a loss. The reactions people post on these opponents’ publicly accessible home pages range from aloof reproof (“Tedious Person”;  “Childish”; “Learn Etiquette” ) to homicidally violent ranting (“DIE stinking piece of bug s**t!” ; “Koward Douchbag!”).


furious chessplayer

Most players do not record their ages but my impressions of those who do suggest that about 30% are schoolchildren of 17 or under; 60% are between 18 and 55 and about 10% between 60 and 90. The few women who play can be formidable. The oldest players clearly find internet chess obsessional fun.  (Last week a 79 year old German, who often beats me, gleefully messaged “Youth Triumphs again!”).

Not all psychologists recognise how rewarding it can be to persistently do something quite difficult quite badly for the rare successes that the Greatest Rat Psychologist of All, B.F. Skinner, called “intermittent reinforcement”. Skinner seems to have been  a rather joyless person – apart from a passion for ballroom dancing – because, in his retirement he warned: “Old age is like fatigue, except that its effects cannot be corrected by relaxing or taking a vacation. Particularly troublesome is old age plus fatigue, and half of that can be avoided.  Possibly you like complicated puzzles, or chess, or other intellectual games. Give them up. ..”2 . Feelings about Chess have always been mixed. Seven hundred years ago the author of Speculum Regiale3 warned “…….beware of, and shun like the devil …. drinking, chess, harlots, quarrelling, and throwing dice for stakes”.


dancing mice


I strongly disagree with Skinner, not only because playing chess badly  often gives me much  pleasure but because playing chess in old age gives special insights into two key problems of cognitive ageing that his simplistic theory could not address:   Does maintaining high competence at one particular, difficult mental skill preserve performance on others? How far can we preserve skills that we have brought to a high level by practising them while we were young by continuing to work at them in in old age? Chess has been a goldmine of answers.

On the first point Gary Kasparov, the longest lasting and perhaps greatest of all Chess world champions, believed that at any age brilliance at chess is not necessarily related to any other form of mental competence  : “Excelling at chess has long been considered a symbol of more general intelligence. That is an incorrect assumption in my view, as pleasant as it might be.” Lodewijk Prins, a Dutch chess champion and a knowledgeable and observant international chess arbiter and referee, remarked “The only thing that chess players have in common is Chess”. I can find no evidence in the  psychological literature that persistent practice at Chess, or Bridge or Crossword Puzzles in old age benefits ability on other mental tasks. In fact I think that one of the most interesting unexplored features of our brains is that learning is intensely specific to any particular skill you practice. Attributions of high general intelligence to chess-players, bridge-players or crossword addicts do not mean that these pastimes make us more clever but only that people who intensively practice mind games, especially in old age, are also likely to have been generally more intellectually active and competent throughout their lives. There is good evidence that continually practising Chess, or Bridge, or Crosswords or Sums keeps you very good at ……Chess, or Bridge or Crosswords or Sums.

We need many thousands of hours to become excellent at Chess – Neil Charness, the doyen of chess researchers, and other colleagues, estimate that expertise needs not less than 5000, and up to 10,000 hours of practice a year but also that excellent players can keep the maximum levels of performance they achieve in youth well into their seventh decades.

Retention of highly practised mental skills in old age strikingly contrasts with early peaks and declines in physical activities, such as competitive athletics where the glory times are very early and short.

World record times for athletics are accurate and comprehensive and are uniquely informative because they document the magic moments when supremely talented individuals who have trained for years, drive themselves to their uttermost limits and achieve a lifetime best that they can never repeat. A generous retired statistician, David Hewitt4  has compared world records for the mile achieved in successive age-decade groups in 1975 and 2002. In both years these were achieved by people aged 32-33. But between age 35 and 65 record times for men fell by 0.8% a year (Men) and 1.4% (Women); between 35 and age 65, by 1.8 %(M) and 2.4% (W) and  between 75 to 85 by 3.6%  (M) and 3.4% (W). Interestingly, although records for all age-decades improved between 1975 and 2001 the rates of age-decline across generations did not alter until age 70. That is, rates of decline remained the same, though starting from higher levels. Also, recent generations now seem to keep going longer because 75 year olds were much faster in 2001 than in 1975 and 80 and 90 year olds are now represented.


elderly sikh  runners


Schulz and Curnow 5 calculate that over the last century records for Olympic track, field and swimming events and also for baseball, golf and tennis illustrate that the ages at which outstanding individuals reach their lifetime peaks has remained constant i.e. about 28 for long distance runners 24 for tennis and 31 for golf. For all these sports records have greatly improved over the last 100 years. They ask, but do not answer the question whether current generations remain at peak form longer than their predecessors. Fair6 reviews similar data contrasting early peak and decline for athletics with tournament records often achieved by chess-players in their 60’s. Does this mean that we may keep our brains and mental skills intact though our bodies begin to decline well before we reach 40?

The simplest measures of mental competence, such as speed of pressing the correct one of two keys to answer a flash on one of two signal lamps, do not support the idea that our brains change less rapidly than the rest of our bodies. Since 1960 my reaction times have slowed by 36 milliseconds, encouragingly less than David Madden’s better researched estimate that between 20 and 70 we lose about a millisecond a year and after that, rather more. This is not an alarming inconvenience but there are also convincing data showing that our scores on simple intelligence tests tend to peak in our mid-twenties and, after that, continuously decline. In contrast, at complicated tasks where there is a huge amount to learn before competence can be achieved, such as managing a business, writing novels or doing cutting edge mathematics and science, we build up to peaks much later in life and, after this, keep the plateaus we have won for two or more decades. By remorselessly practicing the skills we most value, or most enjoy can we mitigate the effects of the progressive changes in our brains that slow our reaction times and  our ability to  solve novel problems?

Studies of chess-playing give useful information. A vast body of chess theory has hugely expanded over the last century. Ways to begin a game – opening strategies- are intensively analysed for more than the first 15 moves by both players. One of the greatest pleasures of learning chess is to encounter the whimsical nicknames for some of these openings:  “The Fried Liver Attack”, “The Sicilian Dragon”; the “Hedgehog”, the Hippopotamus” the “King’s Indian” or the “Orang-utan” (said to have been invented, or at least named by Grandmaster Tartakower while visiting a Zoo during an intermission of a chess-tournament) are a few of scores of delights. New analyses of hundreds of opening positions, common middle-game positions and endgames appear monthly.  It is not too much of a stretch to think of this huge body of information as a collection of program-sub-routines to deal with the thousands of different situations that often occur during games. Weak players like myself do not try to keep up and only learn and use such fragments as we can. Champions cannot afford to do this, and must spend thousands of hours a year reviewing old and new discoveries.

As for computers, to have a superbly effective program is one thing but having the capacity to run it is another. The doyen of researchers into chess-play, Neil Charness has illustrated this distinction in many ways. He showed that the more skilled chess-players are, the more extensively and deeply they search through potential lines of play. Also older players thought of, and worked through fewer, though not necessarily less effective possible continuations than the young7. Charness also found that players in their early 20s can recall briefly seen chess-positions much more accurately than can players in their late 40’s and 50’s and that the age-difference increases if there is a lag between seeing and recalling positions. This is true both for weak and much stronger players.8 With Jastrzembski and Vasyukova 9  Charness also found that on a simplified quarter-chess-board older players even older experts, were slower to recognise opportunities for check-mates than younger players. Trevor Robbins and Alan Baddeley, and a large group of collaborators10, used distracting tasks to show how much appropriate decisions in chess depend on the ability simultaneously to hold in memory alternative, branching possibilities of a chess theme or program of play in working memory. All of these examples emphasise the difference between having spent many years successfully  learning strategies, and rapidly and accurately recognising when they are appropriate  and, at last, successfully carrying them through. Roring and Charness11 indirectly addressed this   by analysing the documented history of 5011 chess players who were able enough to be documented in databases of tournament statistics over their playing lifetimes. They found that individuals’ peak performance ages are shown to be older when careers are tracked longitudinally for the same individuals rather than compared between different individuals who were in different age-groups at a particular point in time. Also that, surprisingly, continued play in tournaments benefits people when they are young more than when they are old and, again surprisingly, that ages of peak performance and rates of subsequent age-related decline are quite similar for extraordinarily good and less distinguished players.

This does not mean that any young person with high general intelligence can learn to become a superb chess player if only she works long and hard enough. Gobet and Campetelli12 studied Argentinian players ranging from weak amateurs to grandmasters and found that, to reach master level, the slower players needed up to 8 times as much practice as did faster players. Those who had started chess younger retained a lifelong advantage. There is such a thing as natural ability, remarkably specific to chess, as is shown by the contrast between the brilliant early and superb later chess career of Bobby Fisher, and his sad incompetence in many other aspects of his life.

So I am not at all inclined to take  B.F. Skinner’s advice and  give up things like work and chess that continue to bring me very great pleasure even as I become conscious that I am no longer as good at them as I once was. I do not think that taking up dancing would be a good substitute, even though a kind  one-time Oxford colleague, the eminent social psychologist Michael Argyle, repeatedly claimed, in his University lectures and in the public media that Scottish Country Dancing is incomparably the greatest and most life-enhancing of all possible human pleasures. I am happy that Michael merrily panted and capered throughout his cheerful and distinguished life, but

scottish country dancing

my own outlook remains as different as it was while we worked in the same Institution. I am very content to get my jollies spending  grey afternoons struggling against the devilish cunning and granite determination of outrageously clever Phillipinos, Argentinians, Russians, Canadians, Americans, Londoners, Germans, Dutch, French, Serbs and Scots until the pawky, brief sun dips below a lower window sill signalling time to call a truce for drinks and to cook my supper.


  1. Internet chess sites are nearly all free (at least to start with, and until you want to purchase useful privileges). I am particularly fond of which is very friendly and well run, offers lively articles with interactive games and (for a small subscription) excellent chess tuition facilities and also runs graded tournaments of 5 min to 10 min and 30+ min. games. It has also just launched very fine new app for ipads and other tablets. Another favourite is www.instantchess which offers a wide choice of opponents especially for brief (15 min) games. You also start for free but may wish to subscribe. One of the oldest and best, allegedly used by very distinguished players, is the Internet Chess Club,
  2. Skinner, B.F. (1983). American Psychologist.
  3. Larson, L.M. (tr.).The King’s Mirror (Speculum regale-Konungs skuggsjá). Scandinavian Monographs 3. New York, 1917. PDF and translation available from Internet Archive.
  4. David Hewitt, personal communication. Details available on request
  5. Schulz, R., & Curnow, C. (1988). Peak performance and age among superathletes: track and field, swimming, baseball, tennis, and golf.Journal of Gerontology43(5), P113-P120.
  6. Fair, R. C. (2007). Estimated age effects in athletic events and chess. Experimental Aging Research,33(1), 37-57.
  7. Charness, N. (1981). Visual short-term memory and aging in chess players.Journal of Gerontology,36(5), 615-619.
  8. Charness, N. (1981). Search in chess: Age and skill differences.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance7(2), 467.
  9. Jastrzembski, Tiffany S.; Charness, N.; Vasyukova, C. (2006) Expertise and Age effects on knowledge activation in chess.Psychology and Aging, Vol 21(2), Jun 2006, 401-405
  10. Robbins, T. W., Anderson, E. J., Barker, D. R., Bradley, A. C., Fearnyhough, C., Henson, R., … & Baddeley, A. D. (1996). Working memory in chess.Memory & Cognition24(1), 83-93.
  11. Roring, R.W. & Chareness, N. (2007). A multilevel model analysis of expertise in chess across the lifespan. Psychology and Aging, 22, 291-299.
  12. Gobet, F. & Campitelli, G. (2007). The role of domain-specific practice, handedness and starting age in chess Developmental Psychology, Vol 43(1), Jan 2007, 159-172


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Old Age and Religion


This month, 73 years ago,  I was sent 1200 kilometers away from cheerful idleness to a boarding school run by Roman Catholic Nuns. Religion became as central to my life as for any madrassa student. Now that I am old I no longer go to church twice daily and pray before and after all meals. No colour print of Purgatory on the wall of a communal bathroom shows that, as surely as I shiver naked,  I must inevitably die and then thrash and scream for at least a few centuries in a customised, mini-tornado of bright orange fire. Unless I can jackpot an Act of Perfect Contrition so fast before I go that I have no time for another sin. Even for an unenterprising seven year old this might be a close thing because just a few milliseconds of apostasy is enough to earn a new Purgatorial tariff. Truly heartfelt denial will plunge my soul, illustrated in my Catechism as a white oval speckled with blackheads of veniality, into total Mortal Darkness. A direct ticket to Hell where, as we infants were told, though enough time may pass for a sparrow to brush the earth with its wing once every century, until it sops up the air and oceans and erodes the whole vast planet, our eternities of suffering will not yet have begun. Muslim acquaintances tell me that they were given the same news with the bonus that between death and judgement they will be conscious of the sights, sounds and smells of their future torments.

Dante's inferno

I do not believe that my infant education only reflected an aberrant obsolete version of True Catholicism or of True Christianity any more than I think that the beliefs that have brought three unsuccessful, French, petty criminals to murder and world-wide publicity have nothing  to do with True Islam. These are  inchoate belief-systems, the sums of  parts, many of which are extremely repellent. Believers make up their own “faiths” from what fragments they please and then, like Sunnis and Shias or Prods and Catholic take licence to kill each other for discrepant selections. Like the New French Martyrs I was instructed by formidable authority-figures in black robes. While Sister Scholastica did not have a neck-beard or a scary paunch, or glisten with good living, she was so intimidating that if she had told me to strap on a bomb and blow up the nearest Anglican Church, Hindu Temple, Islamic Mosque, Lamasery or even a religiously-dodgy fast-parata outlet I would have snivelled piteously, put on the gear and trotted to oblivion like the little Nigerian girls Boku Haram abuses in the name of God and his Messenger.

J with child

Now, at last, old age has relieved me from speculation about which of the witty tortures described in Dante’s Guide Book I am most likely to suffer. Is this part of a change that we all experience or is it only personal?  Starter questions are whether the incidence of religious belief is declining and whether it differs between age groups.

McAndrew and Voas  ( 1 and in their many other reports) give a fine introduction to how religiosity can, and should not be quantified. One lesson is that we need to discover what people actually do, rather than what they say that they believe. In 1980 Religious Trends No 7  reported that 5,201,300 people, 11.1% of the UK population, had attended Church on a given Sunday. By 2005 this number was 6.3% and is predicted to drop to 5% in 2015.  This seems to reflect both falling uptake of belief among the young and progressive deaths of the more religious old.

A  UK Ipsos MORI poll in January 2007 found that 36%, (about 17 million adults) were humanist in basic outlook and, including these, 41% agreed that ‘This life is the only life we have and death is the end of our personal existence’ and 62% said that ‘Human nature, by itself, gives us an understanding of what is right and wrong.’ Only 27% agreed that ‘People need religious teachings in order to understand what is right and wrong’. The 2013 YouGov poll found that only 25% of 16-24 year olds believed in any God and 38% neither believed in any God nor in any “greater spiritual power”. Only 12% were influenced by religious leaders. In the next, 2014, YouGov poll 77% of UK respondents said they were not religious.

World trends are consistent with those in the UK. A 2012, WIN/Gallup poll found that 36% of the world’s population said they were not religious and 13% of these were atheists. A significant increase on previous years. A  2014 Pew Global Attitudes Survey, found that most adults in all of the 9 European countries as well as in Canada, Israel, Japan, Australia, Argentina and Chile did not think that a belief in God necessary to being moral. In France this majority reached 85% and in Spain 80%. A 2014 WIN/Gallup poll found that scepticism of the benefits of religion is greater in Britain than in most other countries. Only 33% of British respondents saw religion as a force for good and over a quarter believed that it has a negative impact. In Denmark, Belgium, France and Spain, the overall perception of religion is negative, particularly among the young and better-educated.  The jihadist term “boku haram” (Western Education is religiously impermissible) does  describe reality. Before and after the Galileo Trial Christian burnings and contemporary Muslim floggings and beheadings and  illustrate the tradition of brutally silencing dissident voices.

Declines in religiosity have recently accelerated but they are the latest stages of a long ebb noted by Matthew Arnold in 1859 2:


The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.

Religiosity is diluted by secular education and also by assimilation into a different culture. The large European Social Survey (ESS) found that while 60.5% of Muslim immigrants who have lived for less than a year in Europe regularly go to mosque, attendance declines, after a year, to 48.8%. Over half of immigrants rarely or never go to a mosque to pray. Despite extraordinarily efforts, by energetic and intimidating fundamentalist movements, mosque attendance is falling in many Arab countries, particularly among the young and most especially in Iran 3. Functionaries of all religions unsurprisingly do their best simultaneously to avoid bringing the declines of their beliefs directly to attention and to counter them.  So protecting their influence, considerable privileges, political clout and relatively easy lives.

Declines in religious beliefs are paralleled by the desire to separate religion and government. In a 2012 UK YouGov poll 67% of people did not think that religion should play any role in public life. In the 2010 British Social Attitudes Survey 75% believed that their religious leaders should not try to influence their voting behaviour; 67% believed religious leaders should stay out of government decision making. 45% believed that the involvement of religious leaders in government would damage policy; 25% believe religious involvement would produce better policy; 82% of those who classed themselves as non-religious and 63% of those who consider themselves religious believe that “people with very strong religious beliefs are often too intolerant of others”.

None of this tells me whether my personal loss of religion as I have aged is typical of my generation. For this we would need longitudinal surveys of individual lifetimes and I can only find cross-sectional data. Representative of these are summary data from the combined 1973-98 General Social Surveys conducted by the National Opinion Research Center. These US trends also appear for most countries and religions.

1900-09 1910-19 1920-29 1930-39 1940-49 1950-59 1960 ON
18-29 27 29 28
30-39 37 36 34 32
40-49 39 40 37 38
50-59 46 44 45 40
60-69 53 46 48 45
70-79 54 57 52 50
80+ 61 55 52
59% 56% 49% 46% 43% 36% 33% 29%

The bottom row shows that more old than younger people say that they are religious.  The columns show similar trends but cells represent different groups so neither rows nor columns tell us whether individuals become more or less religious as they age.

A different possibility is that there is something about religion that is especially nurturing and comforting for the elderly.  Apart from the great promise of eternal life beyond the reach of pollsters there do seem to be earthly and temporal benefits.

Americans aged 65+ % “very happy” by health status and Religiosity

STRONG 63% 58% 51% 45% 30% 28%
SOMEWHAT 61 59 32 32 30 20
NOT VERY 54 60 38 32 25 18
NO AFFILIATION 45 67 29 39 18 10
TOTAL 58% 59% 41% 40% 27% 24%

Strong religiosity seems to be associated with better health. Interestingly, more so for old men than old women. These numbers are consistent with data from other studies that also suggest that the faithful live longer. I cannot find analyses in which differences in affluence and lifestyle, possibly associated with religiosity, have also been considered. Also, belonging to particular religious groups may give elderly people many kinds of useful support. So I can favour no single explanation.

If, having religion prolongs life, for whatever reason, it might be good for me to take it up again as soon as I can. This is difficult because lifelong encounters with the weird Middle-East Trinity of ultra-punitive religions, Islam, Christianity and Judaism make me consider their premises equally ridiculous, and their belligerence, (whether in Republican USA, in Saudi-Arabia or in Jerusalem) equally disgusting. An added bonus is that I try to base my interpretations of the world on logic and on generally agreed data with none of the legal protection from contradiction or mockery enjoyed by “Beliefs”. For comfort, longevity and legal protection there is nothing  to do but what countless charlatans have done, and invent a new religion. I shall base it on the Holy and Refulgent Gerbil, whose true name I can never reveal to you lest unbelievers profane it with their filthy heretical tongues and lips and sinful laughter. Nor may I devise and show you any image of the Sacred HARG. Human representations would be insulting because they cannot capture the Sacred HARG’s Infinitely Gerbilly Nature and might even mislead true believers into idolatry. (Of course HE is MALE, how could HE possibly be otherwise?).

J John

If unbelievers  insult the divinity of HARG by drawing images of Him, or  ignore the stern but just Laws  I have carefully derived from the wise teachings (made manifest to me, alone) that I have recorded for the guidance of all mankind in scrupulous commentaries and hadiths….I shall become very, very, very cross indeed!  I shall invoke the power of the Common Law to silence your insults and I shall also, personally, revenge your abuse of the Sacred Harg on your sinful body.  I have no gun and am squeamish of mess. Unlike the present head of my former faith, Pope (“Slugger”) Francis, I will not punch you in the face (he is younger and seems more limber than I am, and has the Swiss Guard to back him up). Like my sainted mentor Sister Scholastica, at the slightest hint of impiety I will hit you with a very heavy and very sharp-angled ruler, as hard and often as I possibly can, on the tender backs of your disgusting heretical legs.

  1. McAndrew and D. Voas (U of Manchester) SQB Topic Overview 4 (Feb 2011).
  2. Matthew Arnold. New Poems, pub 1867.
  3. M. Tezcur*, T. Azadarmaki & M. Bahar (2006). Religious Participation among Muslims: Iranian Exceptionalism Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 15, No. 3, 217–232.


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