Learning and Liberty

A modest proposal: let them eat cake

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A modest proposal: let them eat cake

(Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Recent events, with alarmingly athletic rioters nimbly mounting police cars, swiftly trashing them, chasing our trusty Myrmidons of the law away from the scenes of crime, and, in general, displaying an energetic disregard for the law of the land, have re-triggered some ancient thoughts of mine about penal reform.

First, though, some news from the Rialto of brain science. In 1997, with Tony Buzan Don Morris of the Champagne Academy and Sir Brian Tovey, Director General of GCHQ, I organised a multi Mind Games competition at London’s Royal Festival Hall. The contest included various forms of chess and its variants, such as Shogi, Xiangqi and Shatranj. It was during this event that Demis Hassabis distinguished himself by winning the Gold Medal for the most versatile competitor.

The human brain has been described as the most complex structure in the observable universe. Consider the facts. Your brain weighs about the same as a bag of sugar, approximately 2 per cent of body weight, yet the brain alone accounts for up to 20 per cent of your body’s energy needs. A thousand billion nerve cells are packed into every human head and there are as many cells between your ears as there are stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. Each of these cells can be connected with up to 100,000 others and just counting each possible nerve connection in the human brain cortex — the outer layer — at the rate of one per second, would take 32 million years. Indeed, humankind’s privileged place on the evolutionary ladder is not the result of powerful physique. Any self-respecting tyrannosaurus would easily have seen off a feeble specimen of Homo sapiens, if such a temporally anomalous meeting had ever taken place.

No, our place in evolution is entirely down to our massive mental power, unique in known creation. So, in my opinion, as a confirmed admirer, from a very early age, of the intelligent Odysseus, rather than the muscle bound Achilles, described by Shakespeare, as “the sinew and the forehand of our host”, the true answer lies clearly to hand. If you really want to live long and prosper, forget about jogging, jumping and honing those bronzed pectorals to glistening perfection. It’s your brain you have to worry about. And one of the best ways to train your brain is to play chess, as Dr. Joe Verghese of the Albert Einstein Institute in New York, has confirmed.

Amidst all the noisy worship of the body, worrying little warnings are already surfacing. Medical observations, for example, that “super-fit” athletes are somehow more prone to colds and infections than the average mortal. That over-specialised physical fitness, in a curious way, erodes the immune system. I gleaned this somewhat paradoxical information from the work of Professor Michael Gleeson, President of the impressive sounding International Society of Exercise and Immunology.

The most ghastly warning, of course, was the sad case of James F. Fixx, super-fit athlete, guru of jogging and author of The Complete Book of Running. Fixx set himself up as the Pontifex Maximus of Fitness. When he first discovered running as the universal panacea, Fixx weighed nearly 16 stone and was breathing hard after the first 50 yards. He got down to 11 and a half stone, ran the equivalent of once around the equator and competed in races and marathons all over the world. As the cover of his “runaway best-seller” trumpeted: “Fixx explains why runners feel better, live longer, enjoy a more vigorous life, sleep better and smoke and drink less than their sedentary friends. Here is the guide to total fitness.”

Fixx ran ten miles every day, and then dropped dead of a heart attack, while jogging in North Vermont in 1984 at the age of 52.

Then there are those embarrassing fitness glitches that regularly seem to afflict US Presidents and presidential hopefuls. One might mention Jimmy Carter collapsing very publicly during a jogging session or one time Candidate for the White House, Bob Dole, spectacularly imploding on his podium and taking most of the structure with him, just after we had all seen him on television being super-fit and super-coordinated on a running machine.

Of course, one must strike a balance. Though sorely tempted, I would hesitate to advocate a totally sedentary life of cerebral contemplation as the ultimate goal. This was the trap which snared the Roman senator and polymath, Pliny the Elder (born AD24) described by contemporaries as: “the most learned man of his age.” Biographer, historian, linguist, orator, lawyer, naturalist, admiral, Mediterranean fleet commander, political advisor to two emperors and blessed with a heroically enquiring mind, Pliny decided to investigate first-hand the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD. Unfortunately, so entranced was he with the life of the mind, that Pliny had neglected the physical completely and had become accustomed to being carried everywhere by his slaves, grandly ensconced in a senatorial palanquin. As the pyroclastic flow, ash and pumice from Vesuvius rained down, the slaves, human nature being what it is, did a runner and poor Pliny was left stranded:

“When daylight finally returned, on the second day after they had last seen him, his body was found intact and undamaged, wearing the same clothes he had put on, his appearance more like one sleeping than one dead.” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, Book VI, Letter 16).

All of Pliny’s independently mobile slaves, by the way, survived the ordeal and lived to run another day. At least, as the arithmetically alert will have noticed, the sedentary Pliny outlived the super-fit Fixx by three years.

If Pliny neglected one side of the Greco-Roman equation for the good life, mens sana in corpore sano, “a healthy mind in a healthy body”, our culture is in danger of leaning too far the other way. But there is a useful corrective to the boredom of the jogging track, the horrors of the gym and the cacophonous fervour of the football fans, namely, the pursuit of sports, certainly, but sports of the mind. In particular, what the Japanese refer to as “the three games”, chess, go and backgammon.

By playing any, or all, of these or other mind-stretching games, such as bridge, crossword solving, draughts, sudoku or scrabble, medical and psychological opinions now suggest that you maximise your chances of a long and healthy life. Perhaps more importantly, one that remains at a high, even increasing, level of mental activity. Fitness and aerobics yes, but aerobics for the mind!

How long will we live? “Three score years and ten” is the most commonly quoted biblical estimate, yet the Book of Genesis itself (Chapter Five) suggests that the human span shall be a hundred and twenty years. More recent official figures for the UK put a woman’s average life expectancy at 82.9 years and a man’s at 79.3. But some experts now believe that it should, with improved lifestyles and medical advances, be reasonable for all of us to reach 100. After all, the most rapidly increasing age group in the USA is the over-85s, already with 50,000+ centenarians in this ever-expanding group and a prediction of 1.2 million by the year 2050. Insurance companies devise actuarial tests to gauge longevity and, of course, their professional existence depends very much on getting this sort of thing right. Their questions divide up into fixed responses, i.e. items most people do not frequently change, such as, are you male or female, or how long did your parents live? Next come variables, that is, items you can do something about.

Interestingly, of the 20 plus key questions which are standardly set, it is an eye-opener to see the huge extent to which mental performance, IQ and Mind Sports related answers can make a difference, accounting for a staggering leeway of up to 11.5 productive years in your favour! Brain cells, or at least the ones that matter, do not inevitably die off as we age, nor do our mental powers automatically diminish. In fact, contrary to rumour and received opinion, brain power and articulacy can increase with age if the mind is kept active. The theory that we lose millions of brain cells every day, especially after a drink, has been widely accepted for years, but it is apocryphal. There is no scientific evidence for automatic brain cell loss with age.

The clinching examples which appeal to me are the superiority of later artistic works, such as Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Consider this statement from Professor Arnold Scheibel, one time head of the Brain Research Institute at UCLA Los Angeles:

“What can the average person do to strengthen his or her mind? Anything that is intellectually challenging can probably serve as a kind of stimulus for dendritic growth, which means it adds to the computation reserves in your brain. Do puzzles, try a musical instrument, try the arts, play tournament bridge or chess and remember, researchers agree that it is never too late. All of life should be a learning experience, because we are challenging our brain and therefore building brain circuitry. Literally, this is the way the brain operates.”

Additionally, research by Dr. Gordon Shaw, also of UCLA, shows that higher brain functions can be improved by listening to Mozart’s music. According to his research, this has a similar effect on brainwaves to playing chess. Shaw compared three listening states Mozart’s Sonata in D Major for two Pianos, a relaxation tape and silence and tested the subjects’ spatial reasoning after each tape. In the short term certainly listening to Mozart raised IQ scores by an average of nine points above the other two tapes.

The beauty of competitive chess is that it is open to all. There are no barriers of gender, nationality or physical ability and no qualifying hurdles to jump, as it were.

There are further valuable lessons to be learnt from Mind Sports. The story is told that one committee meeting of the British Chess Federation had to be cancelled because the group was inquorate. Mr Soanes turned up, but Mr Ritson-Morry was in jail for embezzlement, while Mr Stammwitz was in jail for bigamy. His feeble protestations at the trial of: “I forgot about the other one,” were predictably brushed aside.

I used to hold the belief that teaching chess in prisons was a good and worthy idea. A controlled regime of exercise ensures that the inmates of our jails are kept physically fit. It seemed, therefore, logical that improving the minds of those incarcerated, by the teaching and general encouragement of chess would be a beneficial parallel.

Indeed, there are many examples of those imprisoned for political reasons turning to chess as a way of keeping their brains occupied, while they were out of circulation. A notable example was the former Prime Minister of Israel, Menachem Begin, who helped to keep his formidable mental powers in shape whilst jailed by the British regime in Palestine. There are also cases of strong chess players in their own right finding themselves behind bars. For example, the two US International Masters, Norman Whitaker and Raymond Weinstein, were jailed respectively for confidence trickery and murder. The Yugoslav Grandmaster Milan Matulovic was sentenced to nine months for careless driving after a fatal car crash, while the two World Champions Wilhelm Steinitz and Bobby Fischer both found themselves under arrest for bizarre reasons. Steinitz was arrested and accused of spying when the moves of some of his correspondence games were intercepted. The authorities suspected that the moves were coded military secrets. The fact that the word “Zug” in German, means both a “chess move” and a “train”, did not help!

Meanwhile, Bobby Fischer was arrested twice. For the first time in Pasadena in May 1981 under suspicion of being a bank robber. The second occasion was in Japan when Fischer was detained for breaching US sanctions against Serbia by playing against Boris Spassky in 1992. Fischer was only released on being granted Icelandic citizenship. In fact, at the time of writing, a petition has been submitted to President Trump requesting that Fischer be exonerated and officially restored to his pinnacle in the American chess pantheon.

Other incarcerated chessplayers, including Alexandre Deschapelles, James Mortimer, Ludek Pachman, Alex Wojtkiewicz, Vladimir Petrov and most illustrious of all, Garry Kasparov, were all jailed for political dissidence or matters of principle.

Mortimer was, by profession, a dramatist and newspaper editor. The crime for which he was imprisoned was to refuse to reveal the name of an author of an article, which was the subject of a libel suit. While inside, Mortimer taught his fellow inmates how to play chess.

This is all well and good, but I have recently had occasion to reconsider my old thoughts on this entire matter of how best to handle “each prisoner pent” as WS Gilbert’s Mikado put it. Surely, by insisting on physical exercise, we are helping to breed stronger and fitter criminals to be unleashed on our streets. While by encouraging chess, or other mind games, we are assisting them to develop Moriarty-like cunning for their new forays, once released, against the law-abiding citizenry. As I have pointed out before, Sherlock Holmes (taking time off from his monograph on the Polyphonic Motets of Lassus) once  remarked that prowess at chess was one mark of a scheming mind. Meanwhile, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe praised chess as the “touchstone of the intellect.”

This is important , since the figures for re-offending are serious. According to Wellcome Research from 2019, recidivism rates are alarming, re-arrest at up to 60 per cent, re-conviction at up to 63 per cent and re-imprisonment 45 per cent.

However, I may have found the answer! After much thought, and with profound apologies to my friends Carl Portman and Julian Simpole, both great advocates of teaching chess in prisons, I have come to a startling new conclusion, one which I am sure would have found approbation with that great theorist of social improvement, Dean Jonathan Swift.

There are, of course, impressive examples of prisoner rehabilitation, designed to successfully reintroduce inmates into society. One might mention John Healy’s book The Grass Arena, which recounts the author’s path to redemption by becoming an accomplished chess player. There is also The Clink Charity that has set up first class restaurants to train prisoners in the arts of haute cuisine and silver service. Currently there are five such operations in H.M. prisons at Styal, Manchester, High Down, Cardiff and the 19th century old Governor’s House at Brixton and it is such bold and entrepreneurial visions that could make a real difference in reducing reoffending by training people in catering skills.

My Swiftian inspiration, though, prohibits chess and concentrates on food, though in a somewhat different manner from that advocated by The Clink Charity. My counter-suggestion is what I term the Fixx-Pliny model, namely that the prison population should a) be deprived of all contact with chess and other mind-enhancing activities, and b) cut off from all forms of physical exercise and fed on an exclusive diet of cholesterol-forming, high calorie cream cakes.

This way, we will ensure that instead of dangerously fit and intelligent malefactors being reintroduced into society, all potential recidivists would, in fact, become stunningly stupid, massively obese and constitutionally ill-equipped to run away successfully from any crime or outrage they might commit in the future. With a bit of luck, a swift getaway might even be impeded by their gigantic creamy cake induced girth which would prevent criminals from squeezing into their (stolen) escape vehicles. Lawbreakers reduced to waddling pathetically from the scene of their crime should make it relatively easy for our Myrmidons to apprehend.

I conclude this week with a couple of games by those two notorious jailbirds: Bobby Fischer who played as Black against Petrosian and Garry Kasparov as White against Najdorf.

Member ratings
  • Well argued: 94%
  • Interesting points: 95%
  • Agree with arguments: 88%
51 ratings - view all

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