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23 May 2018updated 04 Aug 2021 3:01pm

Many like to switch off by playing sport but don’t shy away from a marathon of the mind

Learn new things, debate new topics, discover new ways to apprehend the world – don’t believe the myth that the brain loses its mojo as we age. 

By Matthew Syed

Last week, I attended a talk by Neil Lawrence, professor of machine learning at Sheffield University, who is now on secondment at Amazon. It was a tour de force across the terrain of artificial intelligence: how algorithms work, how they learn and how they are shaping our lives. There were also stimulating sections on data protection, hacking and legal reform.

These kinds of talks, dazzling in their intellectual sophistication and range, are now commonplace across the UK’s big cities. They are also often free and open to all. I have listened to the great philosopher PMS Hacker on the nature of language, Professor Mark Thomas on cultural evolution, and a powerful debate on memory (this time for a small fee) at the Royal Institution, the building in Mayfair where Michael Faraday conducted much of his pioneering research.

I mention all this because it is commonplace to hear laments about the dumbing down of our culture. And perhaps this criticism is not entirely unfair when applied to the major television channels, many of which seem unable to tackle complex topics without patronising viewers. Yet the opportunity to listen to great thinkers and innovators today is unprecedented, not just at live events but on the internet, too.

A couple of weeks ago, I read a fine piece in these pages about Bryan Magee, the polymath who found fame in the 1970s with his television programmes interviewing the greatest philosophers of the day. All are now available on YouTube, making for a comprehensive survey across Western philosophy. The programmes with Hilary Putnam on the philosophy of science and Bernard Williams on the linguistic turn are particularly mesmerising.

Many like to switch off from busy working lives by playing sport, and I get that. I play a couple of games of tennis a week, and admire those who take on challenges such as marathons, triathlons and the like. There is something both escapist and invigorating about physical exercise. As Adharanand Finn put it in his book, Running with the Kenyans: “Somewhere a primal essence stirs deep within us; this being born not to sit at a desk or read newspapers and drink coffee. As we run, the layers of responsibility and identity we have gathered in our lives, the father, mother, lawyer, teacher… all fall away, leaving us with the raw human being underneath.”

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But I have to confess that while sport is wonderful, there is something even more liberating to be found in exertions of the mind: learning new things, debating new topics, discovering new ways to apprehend the world. I often do a bit of background reading before attending a talk, and then find myself discussing the themes with my wife on the journey home. I can honestly say that these events have stretched me in ways I could never have anticipated, and have enriched our marriage.

There is a dangerous myth that the brain starts to lose its mojo as we get older. That we can’t really learn new things. That late middle age is the start of the slow descent towards senility and death.

Scans reveal a different truth: that our brains remain plastic and capable of learning new ideas into ripe old age. A paper in the journal Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience notes that in elderly people, “the brain has the capacity to increase neural activity and develop neural scaffolding to regulate cognitive function”.

Moreover, being open to new ideas can drive benefits at work. In The Medici Effect, Frans Johansson argues that individuals become more creative when placed at the intersection of disparate ideas. The title of the book comes from the burst of creativity in 15th-century Italy. “Thanks to the [Medici] family, sculptors, scientists, poets, philosophers, financiers, painters, and architects converged upon the city of Florence,” Johansson writes. “There they found each other, learned from each other and broke down barriers between disciplines and cultures.”

This tallies with recent research on creativity. The physicist Geoffrey West has shown that if you double the population of a city, the level of creativity (as measured by innovations, research and development activity, patents, inventors, etc) goes up disproportionately. A city that is ten times larger is 17 times more innovative, while a city that is 50 times larger is 130 times more innovative. This is sometimes called “superlinear scaling” and it corroborates the notion that we become more inventive when standing at the juncture of diverse ideas and influences.

The point, really, is that today we have more opportunities than ever before to create our own intersections, to plot our own intellectual journeys. We can enjoy marathons of the mind, and triathlons of learning. Ted Talks command a great deal of publicity, but they are only one tiny component of this long tail of potential learning. To watch top footballers in the Premier League costs a small fortune, and all you can really do is cheer (or boo). You can attend a public lecture at, say, University College London, however, without paying a penny, and directly question the finest minds.

At a recent event at the LSE, I sat next to a chap, perhaps in his sixties, called Dale. Afterwards, we caught one another’s eye, and he told me of how he tries to attend an event every week. “It has massively helped me at work, but that isn’t why I do it,” he said. “I think that there is nothing more stimulating than learning about the world.” Karl Popper, an intellectual giant of the 20th century, put it somewhat more pithily: “True ignorance is not the absence of knowledge but the refusal to acquire it.” 

Matthew Syed writes for the Times. His books include “Black Box Thinking” (John Murray) and, for children, “You Are Awesome” (Wren & Rook)

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This article appears in the 23 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Age of the strongman