Does the Mind Age?

Does the Mind Age?

The mind has an age, but does it age? The body also has an age, and it does age. The person has an age, and that thing too ages. How old are these things? The body is probably the oldest, because its existence pre-dates the existence of both mind and person (these two are connected): the fetal body in the womb exists before the mind or person does. Clearly, all three are older than they are customarily taken to be, since someone’s age is conventionally reckoned from the date of birth—and our body, mind, and selfhood pre-date that (to the best of our knowledge). We really have three ages, none of them coinciding with our conventionally defined age. But that is not my question: my question is whether the mind can be said to age (verb), as the body and person can be said to age. The OED gives the following definition for “age” (verb): “Grow old, mature, show the effects of the passage of time; begin to appear older”. What are the usual effects of the passage of time on the human being (also animals generally)? They are very familiar: sagging and wrinkled skin, grey hair, muscular atrophy, stooped posture, slowness of movement, joint stiffness, bone fragility, proneness to fatigue, and the like. These are generally expressed in appearances—the person looks old. Ageing is the process of coming to appear old as thus understood. They are the defining symptoms of age. The person is declared old in virtue of these bodily changes; ageing is the accumulation of such changes over time.

But notice that they are all bodily: nothing about the mind is mentioned. And with good reason—because none of these apply to the mind (you don’t have a wrinkled mental skin, because the mind doesn’t have a skin). It would be a kind of category mistake to attribute such changes to the mind. Based on these criteria, then, the mind doesn’t age. But aren’t they the only criteria of ageing that we have? If so, the mind doesn’t age. The mind changes with time, it grows and matures, it may even decline: but it doesn’t age. Clothes and shoes age, as do houses and cars, as do animal bodies, but minds don’t undergo standard ageing processes: they don’t bear the tell-tale marks of the passage of time (“wear and tear”). Many things have an age but don’t age: regions of space, atoms, oceans, planets, doctrines; and some things have neither an age nor do they age: numbers, universals (according to Plato), time itself, modus ponens, to name a few. So, the mind might belong to one of these groups: minds don’t undergo the ageing process, though they evidently have an age. They change with time, but they don’t grow old, or appear to grow old.

You might reply that minds have their own type of ageing process, their own way of growing old, admittedly not the same as the body’s ageing process: forgetfulness, mental slowness, concentration problems, confusion. But these are not the effects of time (the rub of the world), and they are not confined to the old (people whose bodies have been around for a comparatively lengthy period). Some young people are forgetful, mentally slow, can’t concentrate, and get confused—that doesn’t mean their minds have prematurely aged, or that they are mentally old. What is true is that brains age, like the body as a whole, and this can affect mental functioning; but it doesn’t follow the the mind ages. The mind doesn’t appear old—whatever that might be in the case of the mind. Alcohol and disease can cause these kinds of psychological conditions, but they have nothing intrinsically to do with age. They may be correlated with age, but they aren’t examples of ageing—any more than being unemployed is a type of ageing, or having right-wing opinions.

And isn’t it simply a fact that one’s consciousness does not change its nature as we (our bodies) grow old? It feels the same as it used to when we were young: my visual experience, say, has undergone no degradation due to ageing—it isn’t fainter or slower or more wrinkled. It is the same as it always was. This is why people say, as they grow older, that they don’t internally grow older, as the body indubitably does. Really, the mind is not the kind of thing that ages; to suppose otherwise is a category mistake, based on viewing the mind through the lens of the body. The brain may shrink with age, so that it is appropriate to speak of an ageing brain, but the mind doesn’t shrink—that is just a category mistake. The mind changes during the period known as old age, as it changes during the period known as adolescence, but in neither case is it appropriate to speak of mental ageing—all we have is age-related change.[1] Hence the feeling that I have not aged (my mind, my soul, my consciousness, my-self)—though my body palpably has. Ageing is what you can see in the mirror, but you can’t see your mind in a mirror. Nor can you introspect and notice that your mind appears a lot older than it was a few years ago—though you might notice that you forget more than you used to (as you tend to think about different things now). Change with age is not ipso facto ageing. If someone becomes forgetful at the age of twenty, that doesn’t imply that he or she has aged—they might just have suffered an accident to the head. The concept of ageing is really defined by the various symptoms of age that I listed earlier and has no life outside of these symptoms, but the mind doesn’t exemplify such symptoms—therefore, it doesn’t age. Not that anyone seriously denies this; we simply don’t talk that way in the normal course of things. We don’t suppose that the mind literally ages in the same sense in which the body ages (and hence the person). But the metaphor might prove irresistible, given our tendency to model the mind on the body; it is therefore salutary to inoculate ourselves against such a tendency—not least because of the dangers of ageism as a prejudice. The whole idea of eternal life in disembodied form is premised on the agelessness of the soul, and to that extent is not conceptually incoherent; as the same idea about the body arguably is (how could a material animal body not age?). The concept of mind is the concept of an un-aging thing; the self of the Cogito knows no ageing process. Thus, the negative connotations of ageing don’t apply to the mind (perhaps they shouldn’t apply to the body); the mind remains spanking new, never scuffed and worn, flabby and bent, wrinkled and discolored. Some regrettable mental changes might be caused by the ageing of the body, but they are not thereby instances of ageing. The mind remains forever young.[2]

[1] Would anyone say that a marked increase of intelligence that reliably occurs in one’s seventies is an example of ageing? I think not.

[2] This sharp contrast between the mind and the body–one ageless, the other inevitably afflicted with ageing—is surely part of the human condition, as the existentialists conceived it. We are conscious of ourselves not just as destined to die but also as ageing steadily in that direction, while consciousness itself is free of such degradation. Thus, we are mixed beings, confusingly so. We embody the “contradiction” of both ageing and not ageing, with each vying for supremacy in our self-conception. Am I old or am I young? I am both. Or neither.

5 replies
  1. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    Whence the shock, “Who the hell is that in the mirror?!” If the mind had a mirror, what would it see? “Whose are those cracks?!” Perhaps the mind’s ability to reflect appearances makes it a type of mirror. That capacity to reflect cannot be seen and it cannot age, even if a mirror can form cracks with age.

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      The mind has often been compared to a mirror. Actual mirrors age, but not ideal mirrors. Our face in the mirror changes disconcertingly with time, while our mind stays reassuringly the same, aloof from our ageing body.


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