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I'm thinking about vampires, as we commonly see vampires who are hundreds (in some cases thousands of years old). In some depictions they appear old fashioned, in others they appear to be as up to date as "normal people".

If someone (for whatever reason) stopped aging alongside their peers and remained physically the same as they were when they were thirty (so no ill effects from old age on their mind). Would they be able to continue to learn and keep up with modern times or is it more likely would they find the new societies and technologies overwhelming?

Would it come down to personality? Or might it depend on the age they were when they were turned?

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    $\begingroup$ That would depends on the speed of development the rapid tech boom we saw since the 90's would be quite a hurdle to overcome $\endgroup$ – ratchet freak Mar 2 '15 at 11:35
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    $\begingroup$ There is a scene in the commonwealth saga where a very rich and very old (hundreds if not thousands of years, I can't remember off hand how old he was at that point) man with a head full of cybernetic enhancements has a large portion of his memories still stored in computer networks and his brain essentially acts as a local cache, fetching more data from the network as it needs it but only storing some. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Mar 2 '15 at 13:16
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    $\begingroup$ Related novel: The Boat of a Million Years $\endgroup$ – user487 Mar 2 '15 at 14:59
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    $\begingroup$ Or "the man from earth" $\endgroup$ – Seb Mar 2 '15 at 17:37
  • $\begingroup$ Related concept... if not the very concept you're asking about - neural plasticity. Specifically, there's a reason that people learn things faster at a young age than they do at an old age, and it's at least partly physiological. Both learning new things, and repeating the same patterns make physical changes in our brains, and the cumulative effect of those changes slows down our ability to learn. Which is not to say it has to be that way, or that long-lived beings wouldn't be able to evolve (or invent) a counter-measure, mind you... $\endgroup$ – HopelessN00b Mar 3 '15 at 7:40

12 Answers 12

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As a Transylvanian native with a strong affinity to dark offices, I believe I can shed some light on your question.

Since I'm typing this on a computer, it should be obvious that at least some of us are up to date in technology, so have kept up with the times.

If I were to engage in introspection, I'd say that my memories of the distant past recede as a function of the distance in time and the emotional importance I attach to them. So participating in my nephew Vlad's games with the delicious Turkish forces in the 1450s was so much fun that I rememeber it all as if it were yesterday, but much of the 16th century is a blur (partially due to a recurring bout of madness that century, probably triggered by something I ate.)

Now in modern times, you'd be surprised by how many of us have servitors working for the Red Cross and other blood-banks, looking out for good rare vintages. It's all very civilized, aside from some reckless youngsters messing about in the more troubled regions of the world. Now due to our telomere relengthening (dis?)order our bodies are essentially stuck around the biological age of 5-35 (it is a long-known fact among us that most bites over 35 don't 'take' very well, for some reason, probably too much gunk in the genecode, while the few attempts to turn people under 5 also seem to universally fail, probably due to the weak immune systems)

So most of us have the brain plasticity and energy levels of a young adult, with our superior, uh, persuasion abilities, and centuries of refining learning techniques, building memory palaces and mnemonic systems to boot. Why, if you looked at Fortune 500 companies and hedge funds, you couldn't swing a garlic wreath without ... uh, perhaps I should not talk too much about that.


Now, am I old-fashioned? In some ways, perhaps. I hold many views that are out of place, not all due to my nature. But you'll never notice them, unless I want you to do so. Why on Earth would I wear 18th century clothing? I may speak with a slight accent, but I am foreign, just like so many others. I may sometimes seem young for my age, but I do move from city to city every decade or two for a change of scenery, so not many people notice. As to my ability to drop my old ways and embrace the new, once you've done it twenty times or so, it gets easier. In fact, you get struck with a certain impatience and wanderlust once in place for too long... You'll see, if we come for you.

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    $\begingroup$ Salutari de la un con-transilvanean :) $\endgroup$ – Dan Dascalescu Feb 19 '16 at 8:32
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As we age, the amount of memory we have available doesn't really increase, which is why experiential time seems to accelerate as we get older- we are trying to pack more events into the same amount of memory. For your long-lived vampires this potentially presents a serious problem, but it also opens up some interesting doors.

  • Spirit memory - there is some other type of memory belonging to the vampire side of the creature, which allows them to recall greater spans of time in greater detail. This would probably have the side effect of making them a genius by human standards as intelligence is in large part a function of memory.
  • Limited memory, requiring records - I rather prefer this one, they can remember the equivalent of a long human lifespan, but beyond that recollections are very hazy, or long term memory is strong but the short to medium term is weak. One could make an interesting plot point of their need to maintain a journal to retain their own identity, with those who don't perhaps forgetting themselves and gradually turning feral while those who do live in fear of their journals being discovered either by humans or by other vampires who could use it for leverage or create their own power by adjusting another vampire's written memories.
  • Refreshed memory - periodically the vampire must choose to give up most of their memories to create new space, but also resulting in them becoming something akin to a new person. This would give them great capacity to adjust to new cultures but also may mean that they move in "jumps" so they become a little set in their ways after a refresh- fitting in great in the 1930s, but a little out of their depth by the 70s and so on.
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    $\begingroup$ Limited memory has an interesting side effect: It gives a good explanation for why a vampire would be obsessed with counting and recording, as lore usually have them. $\endgroup$ – Williham Totland Mar 2 '15 at 14:00
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    $\begingroup$ That last option sounds a lot like Doctor Who. $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh Mar 2 '15 at 14:17
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    $\begingroup$ As we age, the amount of memory we have available doesn't really increase, which is why experiential time seems to accelerate as we get older- we are trying to pack more events into the same amount of memory. OK, some SERIOUS citations needed here. $\endgroup$ – Davor Mar 2 '15 at 14:18
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    $\begingroup$ @glenatron Odd, then, that the article you link attests to a weak association between age and subjective perception of time, and explicitly states that we don't know why this occurs. $\endgroup$ – KSmarts Mar 2 '15 at 18:46
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    $\begingroup$ It seems to me that people tend to spend a lot of time running automatically on habit, more than we think, and moreso the more experience we have. When we're younger and more things are new and fresh, they get more conscious attention. Later we tend to think we recognize and know things more, and so we get deeper into habits of automatic response. As long as we don't have brain damage, it is possible to notice and not do this, but it takes a degree of self-awareness. I would not say it is that our brains are out of room, but that we have more things we think we know and have stuck habits for. $\endgroup$ – Dronz Mar 2 '15 at 21:45
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I would think that if you lived a very long time, but didn't become old and tired, the main enemy would be boredom (and, of course outliving loved ones and avoiding detection).

And the best antidote to boredom would be to have new experiences, challenges and to continue learning. This leads to "keeping up with the times" being a natural thing for such a being to want to do.

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    $\begingroup$ Boredom is an affliction of a weak mind. Contrarily, most of us are too busy and yearn for more free time to do more stuff. It's a truly glorious century to be alive in. Well, in a manner of speaking. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Mar 2 '15 at 19:06
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Much like most humans, this will probably depend on the individual.

Some elderly folks seem to keep up rather well, they adapt to new technology, they enjoy new music, they try new foods, and so on... They enjoy variety and find interest in the new.

Others cling to "the good old days", modern times seem somehow corrupt and lacking compared to their rose colored version of their youth. Much like how members of "The Greatest Generation" looked back on the Great Depression and World War II "you know people had moral fiber back then... hardworking, dependable" or how the "Baby Boomers" look back at the swinging 60's "remember when sex was safe and motorcycles were dangerous?"

I would guess that you would find the same diversity in vampires. Some would miss the good old days, when hiding the leftovers from dinner was as easy as tossing them on the plague cart. While others would probably enjoy the modern urban subcultures where vampires could hide out in the open.

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    $\begingroup$ Or to put it another way, some older people don't seem to keep up with the times because they have been around long enough to be able to distinguish between true invention and mere fads, in part because if you keep seeing the same new thing (only different) over and over it just isn't as exciting or promising as the first five times you saw it. $\endgroup$ – Michael Mar 3 '15 at 21:05
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I think it comes down to personality and personal tastes/interests. I do have a certain amount of first-hand experience to draw on (though perhaps not as much as Serban Tanasa does :-)). It's certainly possible to keep up with current culture, if sufficiently motivated - as for instance by the need to blend into society, or (in my case) earn a living.

On the flip side (see, an antique cultural reference slipping in there!), it can be hard to find a reason to bother, unless there is some inherent interest or benefit. So for example, I find it much easier to understand Shakespeare's English than the patois of contemporary urban culture, work at the bleeding edge of tech but don't see the appeal of Facebook & Twitter, and so on. And tend to irk my friends by sending text messages that are written in full sentences, correctly spelled & punctuated.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for "irk my friends by sending text messages that are written in full sentences, correctly spelled & punctuated." $\endgroup$ – Guntram Blohm Mar 3 '15 at 16:13
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There are two obvious directions to approach this problem: either continuously add information storage matter, continuously improve the storage efficiency of the information, or continuously optimize the useful information.

The first option is certainly cheating. Eventually we'd have giant heads wobbling on our thin little necks. However, for some creatures, this is a valid approach. Consider if the internet was alive. Its approach to continuing to learn is to keep adding harddrives all along its nodes.

The second option is less cheating. If we could gzip the information in our heads, we could compress it better. Unlike the first option, I consider it a fair direction to explore because in theory we could learn new compression algorithms, so it would make sense that you could keep growing this way.

The third option is where things get interesting.

Consider that we don't have to remember everything. Most humans do fine, even though we don't remember much from when we were 2. We kept the parts that were useful (walking is awesome, we should keep doing that), but we generally forgot all of the memories. They weren't very helpful anyways (unless you found a way to puke on your mom's favorite dress without getting her angry... that will be a useful skill in those upcoming frat days).

The trick is that we collect a large amount of information, not knowing if it's actually useful or not. Eventually some of it condenses into smaller nuggets which have long term potential, and we keep those. We don't really need to know the exact wind speed or time of day when we fell off the bike and skinned our knees. The part that was really useful was the fact that bikes are not 100% stable. Sometimes we do remember the whole event "like it was yesterday," but even that word choice should suggest that that is the exception not the rule.

There are unlimited ways you can go about this, but some of them are simple, so it makes sense to look at them before exploring the real creativity that is human existence.

One simple approach is time-boxing. Your creature could decide "I remember the last 100 years worth of events, and after that I forget." This approach is nice because it's easy. However, it removes one of the major advantages to living a long time: the ability to collect experience. Pretty soon our creature would forget WWII, and would be on the same footing as any individual from the modern era who never went through it.

The next step along that line is repeated time-boxing. In this solution, the unusually long lived being "forgets" everything it knows, and then lives out a normal existence until some trigger "wakes it up." In then processes everything in that life, assimilates it, and then does the process over again. This pattern is common in science fiction as a "solution to getting bored," ensuring each life is as new and exciting as the last. As long as the trigger invokes your full capacity before you get yourself, in trouble, you're safe.

Also interesting is that this process can be recursive. Eventually you could "fill up" the larger mind, and then you're stuck. But if that lifespan is also time-boxed, it could pass that information on to a longer lived one. Consider saving half of your mind for "the long existence," that you wake up to at the end of each "forgetful" lifetime. The other half is allocated to life. You could then divide this half mind in half again, devoting one part to "the middle existence," and one to "the short existence" of a lifetime. This path guarantees that your longest existence has complete unfettered control over at least half of your resources at all times, while the rest of the resources cycle useful information up towards it.

Of course, this pattern has a catch. It is remarkably hard to start. You have to hold back a remarkably large amount of your mental resources as you walk the earth using a fraction of your brain. The rest is slowly filled... very slowly. If you get in trouble during a "short" life, you won't have a whole lot of experience saved up because you chose to live such a small existence (using only a fraction of your mind for each life).

So let's flip it around. Lets use as much mind as we possibly can at all times. That's much more effective while we are young. When our "life" is full, we'll split our mind into two bins, half for holding onto "old" memories, and half for making "new" memories. We then fill the "new" memories bucket again, until it's full, and grab the juicy bits to keep in the "old bucket."

Eventually the old bucket gets full. Here's where we change it up. In the previous approach, we had subdivided the "new" bucket, so our brain for holding onto new memories got smaller and smaller as we tried to live longer and longer, leading to thinner and thinner lives. In this approach, we subdivide the old bucket. We now have 1/2 of our brain devoted to "new life," 1/4 devoted to "middle life," and 1/4 devoted to "all life." When we subdivide again, we end up with 1/2 new, 1/4 middle, 1/8 older, and 1/8 "all the rest." Each time we divide this way, we keep half of our brain for new experiences, so life continues to be new and exciting, every time we live it.

Now lets take this to the extreme. Buckets are nice, but nature loves continuous processes. If we stretch ourselves out to be reaaaaly old, we start to see a really strong exponential pattern form, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16... Mathematics has a continuous version of this, the exponential curve: a*e^-kt.

Time to cook with some real gas. Let's make a model for our memories. We're going to show a pattern for compressing memories. Let's make a Y axis be "amount of our mind we're using for this data" and X axis be "how old the data is." Draw an exponential curve in the first quadrant (above and to the right of the axes).

The unknown of the world appears in the negative X axis. This is the data which we cannot know because it is "-12 days old," i.e. 12 days in the future. As we move through the world, these unknown values move to the right, towards "0 days old." This is the only point where we can interact with the world, and experience it. We can't experience things that happened in the past, we can only remember them. So we can measure the size of our life experience by how much of the world fits below the exponential curve at X=0 (now). The more that fits under the curve, the more of our mind we've devoted to being in the present.

From here on out, the data is no longer experience, it's simply memories. Data moves to the right, becoming older. As it does, the exponential curve clamps down, forcing us to compress the data. We analyze the data, and pick the "most useful" bits to keep going along. Maybe we don't need the full 1080p version of someone throwing a water balloon full of shaving cream at us... maybe the 320x200 youtube video will do. Maybe we realize that all 5 of our Engineering courses actually only taught us one thing, in different ways (differential equations), and that we can remember them all in much less space if we refactor them to all use the same space.

Eventually the oldest parts of us remember the most important little details. Perhaps it's a religion. Perhaps it's a thing that drives us to be alive.

A long lived creature can modify the exponential they use to store data. However, generally speaking they have finite resources. They can't simply say "give me a larger 'a' term so I can live more of life to the fullest." There's a tradeoff between 'a' and 'k.' The more of life you experience, the faster you have to compress it to stay under the bounding limit of the curve. The less of life you live, the more you can drag out that compression process, giving more fidelity to the older memories, and decreasing the risk of compressing out something you needed.


So those are the easy versions, which have nice clean shapes. There is a final one that I will write down, which builds off of the exponential. In the exponential memory described above, the march of time was relentless, crushing memories and hopes and dreams alike. It doesn't account for us remembering important events like our wedding night for years afterwards like it was just yesterday.

Change up the X axis. It is no longer "time," but "subjective time." The more subjective time has passed, the more compressed an idea is. Other than that, very little changes. The world still meets us at x=0 where we experience the world. However, let's let the process of remembering be a bit more chaotic. Lets let ideas go in both directions: getting compressed as before, and getting 'inflated,' doing our best to reconstitute the original memory from the compressed version. Now we can explain how we remember our wedding night: if we let a memory float in the wide open space near X=0, we can keep its full beauty alive. We simply never let it get compressed. Of course, this forces us to compress the rest of our life faster (making our life a bit thinner), but maybe it gives us purpose.

Of course, all good things must come to an end. Under the pressure of all of the incomming experiences, the memory ebbs and flows, compressing and decompressing ever so slightly. Eventually, the memory starts to fade, and we are forced to let time take its course, compressing the memory so we can still hold onto it.

This model should be sufficient for your long lived creature to learn. They live the balance: compressing memories as little as possible to keep them beautiful, but compressing them enough to avoid clogging their mind and stopping them from learning and experiencing. As long as they do a good job of this balance, there is no reason they cannot live for as long as they please, and learn the entire time. However, if they ever get "caught in the past," they could clog their mind and miss out on key opportunities to learn.

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  • $\begingroup$ Maybe the organization of the long bin requires some kind of super-dreamimg or hyper sleep state, lasting an extended period, to accomplish. Maybe every 30 days of normal wake\sleep he then needs 20 days of supersleep to handle the long half. Keep same proportion as wake/sleep but longer scale. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz May 26 '15 at 16:53
  • $\begingroup$ @JDługosz that could certainly work, though it does just kick the can down the road. It's probably sufficient for beings that are merely hundreds of years old like those referenced by the OP. It would certainly create interesting effects on their culture. Consider how much of our world can change in 20 days of super slumber. You could probably create the equivalent of a sleep deprived human by keeping things too interesting to allow for that much sleep. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon May 26 '15 at 17:09
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For a detailed look on this concept I highly advise watching the movie "The man from Earth". This is exactly about what you asked, the story and the views of a man who was born in 14.000 years ago in the upper paleolithic and survived until modern days looking like thirty-something. Of course, he met some interesting people in the past and did a few interesting things. Or did he?

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks a lot for the recommendation. It's a special movie. $\endgroup$ – tshepang Jun 26 '15 at 0:07
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It would come down to specifics, such as:

  • What is causing them not to age, and what are the relevant side-effects. As you noticed, even within vampire stories, the nature of the cause and effects vary a lot.

  • What are the mental habits of the person in question. Some people might get quite stuck in various ways, while others would not, and one person might change in this respect depending on what they were experiencing and how they were taking care of themselves or not during these many decades or centuries.

  • What are their other habits and experiences during this time? Are they abusing drugs or alcohol? Are they experiencing trauma? Are they focusing single-mindedly on some isolative pursuit? Are they fascinated by sociology and always mingling with new people? Do they travel? Are they suffering from various serious illnesses? Exposed to radiation?

I think all sorts of possibilities are out there, depending on the answers to these and other questions.

For a mundane baseline, I think people tend to pile up mental habits and unconsciously become more and more creatures of habit rather than remaining curious and conscious and developing. I also think that's not necessary unless and until they get stuck in habits, dissociation, or other problems which can interfere with awareness and mental health.

If the habit angle sounds interesting, you might check out the easy read The Habit Loop, which I think offers some relevant perspectives and also has good insights into breaking addictions and how to be effective etc.

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I have been thinking about this recently and come up with this idea:

(not only) Brain regeneration - as your brain cells die out, new ones do born. So by mass, your brain remains the same, but it limits your ability to remember something in the past.

If you play a little with it, you could have long living being which can remember up to 120 years into past in the same way as we, normal puny humans do. That would allow such being to learn and stay in the game.

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There is evidence that certain skills are best learned at a certain age. Take languages, for example.

Some tastes are acquired early, too. Think back to the music you heard in your teens, or beauty standards from those days.

Sure, the vampire can learn new skills and forget old ones. But the bygone era never quite goes away.

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  • $\begingroup$ If musical tastes are a guide to age, I must have been a teenager sometime in the early 1700s - if not earlier :-) FWIW, I doubt I'd ever really heard Bach or Handel before I was well into my 30s, Celtic before my 40s, yet those are now my preferred music. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Mar 2 '15 at 22:57
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What is the molecular mechanism by which your long lived being stops aging? Memory depends on creating new neural connections in the brain, or reinforcing existing ones by routing information through them more frequently, making them "stronger". If your age-stop prevents this from happening, then learning will cease too.

If this mechanism is still intact, there is nothing to physiologically prevent your being from going along with the times. Note that the example of "skills better learned early" doesn't apply here. This is a developmental question, a child's brain is organised differently from an adults, this is why when you learn a language at 5, the knowledge of it is different from having learned it at 35. But once the brain has been fully developed (this seems to happen in your mid-20s), the mechanisms used for learning are settled. So a language learned at 35 is not memorized differently than a language learned at 45 or 55, even though it's different from doing it at 5.

I have never read a story which describes the exact physiological change to vampire's bodies down to biochemistry signaling pathways and changes to the cell functions such as a different metabolism or changed reaction to neurotransmitters (good luck writing such a story and finding somebody willing to read it!). The problem is that, from a biological point of view, an "undead" state does not exist. A being either has to be alive - which means that it can move, eat, make sounds, and build memories, but also ages, because all these processes introduce wear and tear to the cells - or be dead, such that all its memory functions have ceased. Any explanation of undead vampires will have to introduce a point where it says "it's magic", and depending on where the author decided to place this point (cell processes continue but aging is magically removed, vs cell processes cease but the vampire is magically still animate), learning will be possible or not.

Also note that everybody grows more conservative with age, learning less and relying more on skills and knowledge learned previously. This surely has both psychological and physiological components (physiological: the neural pathways for some skills are way too well established after decades, psychological: it's tiring to learn new things all the time). As we have never observed century-old creatures capable of communicating abstract thoughts to us, we don't know how the process will continue after a certain age, especially if the usual age-related cognitive decline does not happen. It could be that old vampires resist learning new stuff for much the same reasons that sweet old ladies resist learning how to do online banking and run to the bank office instead, even when their brain is capable of do the learning. There is no way to answer if this would happen, at least not until we have understood how the brain learns. If you are writing your own story, pick continued learning or increasing resistance (with linear, progressive or sigmoid progress) depending on what works better with your plot, both are plausible.

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  • $\begingroup$ I would challenge the notion that everyone grows more conservative with age (especially if you mean politics). If you rely more on learned skills, it's because you HAVE those skills. If you tend to reject fads, it's because you have gained perspective. And I have observed a century old creature - my neighbor - who is more capable of communicating abstract thoughts than the average "millenial". $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Mar 26 '15 at 18:11
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf I didn't mean politics, although this is one of the places where the age correlation is well known, doi: 10.1093/geronj/29.5.549. I meant that old people prefer less change in their environment than young people, on a population level, regardless of what individual examples exist which contradict the general trend. I said that they prefer to learn less and use what they have learned instead. It doesn't matter if this is because they cannot learn or because they can but don't want to - if it holds true, extrapolation predicts that there will come a point for immortals (cont) $\endgroup$ – rumtscho Mar 26 '15 at 18:28
  • $\begingroup$ (cont) where they prefer to learn zero, or a tiny amount of new knowledge. As for old people capable of communicating thoughts, I don't deny that, but I don't see how it concerns my line of argumentation. Being able to express ideas is not the same cognitive skill as being able to amass new knowledge, so it is possible that one declines while the other stays OK or even grows. $\endgroup$ – rumtscho Mar 26 '15 at 18:32
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I believe, the answer is yes, they can manage to cope up with the modern times, but not without problems.

Human brain does not work the same as a static flash disc; it does not “fill up” and require more space. A memory might be a visual image, a smell, taste or a pain; but usually it is also associated with other inputs. A smell might remind your ex, a picture of a pizza can make you hungry; seeing blood might bring up memories of war and cause panic attacks and nightmares.

There is also a theory that each time you remember something, you remember the last time you have remembered it. So, it fades over time and worse, it is distorted. People who live through accidents might remember the event vaguely or may not remember them at all. So, the memories are going to be very unreliable. He is going to have problems of distinguishing memories with old dreams, or even day-dreamings. He might decide to keep a diary.

So, if you think a memory as a connection of brain cells, the brain does not fill up. It overrides the old connections; imagine a smell, a sound is associated with many more events and people. As a consequence, I believe they can adapt to the modern world, but living that long is going to have some consequences, like, they are going to have a lot of dejavus. They are going to hear sounds and experience tastes, that remind them of something, but most of the time, it will be impossible to find out what it is.

They are also going to react to the world differently, I had a friend who had experienced poisoning on a pesticide treated ship; he developed allergy to machine oil and several other chemicals, associated with the machines. So, their bodies are going to develop some unusual and unexpected behaviours.

So, I believe they are going to be weird people, probably a little bit crazy as well. But yes, they can still learn new things and live among us

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