The human brain ages — perhaps not as obviously and as rapidly as our knee-joints and facial muscles but it does so with a degree of certainty that can be compared to the mother of all certainties: death.
Normally, such a pedantic observation will find no room in a column on sport. But Magnus Carlsen’s utterly ruthless demolition of Viswanathan Anand, about 21 years older than him, in the 2013 World chess championship, has opened our eyes to truths that go way beyond the limited confines of sport.
Beyond what it meant to the world of sport, beyond what it meant to chess, the Chennai championship dealt a body blow to one of the biggest lies — or, illusions, if you prefer to sound mild — we choose to live with: that our minds can be forever young even as our bodies age.
If, in the ultimate mind game, a handsome, charismatic young man who chooses to spend his time off the board playing basketball or beach volleyball, can so thoroughly outmanoeuvre a multiple world champion famed for his opening preparations and resilience, the result at once raises a lot of interesting questions.
It would appear to the lay person that in chess — basically a mind game — experience would matter more than youthful cognitive brilliance.
But advances in neuro-biology and evolutionary psychology in the new millennium have clearly pointed to the fact that even if your mind — which is nothing but a process enabled by an all-too-physical structure called the brain — stubbornly refuses to obey the laws of Father Time, sooner than later, it has to fall in line.
That the physical laws that govern footballers, cricketers and tennis players apply to chess wizards, too, was amply evident from the manner in which a fetching Nordic genius, all of 22, went about the job of demolishing Anand’s title defence.
But this is mostly true of the world in general — not just sport. Top athletes may well have to start thinking about life after retirement at a younger age than corporate honchos and economists, not to speak of ageing actors, but the law of diminishing returns applies to every area of human activity.
We have evolved as dualists, and many of us might always prefer to believe that physical activity and cognition through neural processes have little in common. But then, if you chose, for just a minute, to give up that illusion, you may well realise that the mind is as embodied as your spine.
This is precisely why even in areas where the muscles and bones are irrelevant, prodigies appear — and often disappear — at a very young age.
Mozart was just into his teens when the world of Western classical music woke up to his genius. Writers and painters generally take a little longer to mature, but even then they almost always produce their best in the early years.
In our social circles, we often hear someone say, “Ah, he may be 85 but he has the mind of a 30-year old.”
When you hear such adulatory observations, you just have to smile, and say nothing — political correctness demands that in our day and age.
But the harsh truth is, a 77-year old brain can never — well, rarely — work like a 27-year old brain, whether the brain happens to be functioning in a chess world championship or in a chemistry lab.
Of course, experience can make up for loss of cognitive sharpness, but only up to a point. Even the great Charles Darwin — who probably came up with the greatest idea ever to occur to a human mind, Evolution through Natural Selection — had his Damascene moment long before On the Origin of Species was published in 1859.
With revolutionary advances in medical technology and genome studies, our generation has come to take longevity for granted. But that is not the same thing as saying we would be as good at sport or writing or painting at 75 as we were at 35.
Belongs to the young
No matter what happens the rest of the way in human evolution, and in sport — mental or physical — the world will always belong to the young (which, given the variety of activities we engage in, is certainly a relative term).
And that is how it should be. Alexander the Great never made it to his Forties but had conquered much of the world before his demise. Scott Fitzgerald never wrote anything of significance beyond age 40.
Of course, when it comes to ageing, the same yardstick may not hold good in every area of human activity. But to harbour the illusion that the mind will remain forever young even as your knee-caps creak and your Senior Moments become part of your daily routine, is to delude yourself into a false sense of complacency.
Carlsen outplayed Anand not merely because he is a prodigiously gifted young man with nerves of steel; he did so because Anand, 43, did not have the mental energy to match the 22-year old Norwegian.
The result itself is nothing to be ashamed of. Life, and sport, will move on relentlessly. And the victory in Chennai belonged to a less-complicated, fresher mind — no matter that it is one that is as embodied as Carlsen’s volleyball-spiking right arm.