Levitin loves to tell stories. He’s a good companion. He tells us about when he walked around wearing distorting lenses to see if his brain made compensations (it did). As we get old, we can’t see or hear so clearly but the brain uses its experience to improvise. In the end, things are not so great. Our brains start to go wrong, then our world falls apart, then we die. But still, there are things we can do.
The Changing Mind is a hybrid of dutiful academic writing and popular science, but one of its strengths is the use of cultural references to illuminate its truths (invoking the emotional trigger of remembrance, for instance, in Joni Mitchell’s songs). The science behind the faultiness of memory underscores what has often been movingly rendered by novelists. In William Maxwell’s So Long, See you Tomorrow, for example, the protagonist, struggling to distinguish a memory of an experience from the recollection of a photo associated with it, concludes: “in talking about the past, we lie with every breath we draw”.
The book is replete with curious facts. You can only be tickled by someone you trust. Redheads are strangely difficult to anaesthetise. Castration will extend a man’s life an average of 14 years. It may seem longer. Levitin has fun with such things as the “smelly T-shirt study” in which males unerringly distinguish between those recently worn by ovulating or non-ovulating women. Who thought the male nose was for that? For women, men’s shirts just smell; they reach for the washing tablets.
The main argument of the book, however, is about mental attitude, not specifics. What best protects our minds against ageing, Levitin insists, is how we approach it. He has his own acronym, inevitably: Coach (curiosity, openness, associations, conscientiousness and health). Even if you are not curious, open or conscientious, Levitin insists that “personality is malleable”. Change is more difficult when you are older, but still possible. The trick is to remind yourself why you are embracing it. The alternative, as the old joke goes, is so much worse.