I'm writing a novel about a (small) group of people with extraordinarily long lifespans.

Now I am wondering on the psychological aspects of that, which has been a side-topic here and there in similar stories, e.g. in the first Highlander movie and to some extent in Dorian Gray. It is generally handwaved in fiction about Elves and other naturally long-lived races.

I'm wondering if there is some research into this in humans. I'm sure that centenarians have sparked the interest of scientists and psychologists have evaluated how it feels to have attended the funeral of everyone you once knew and such things.

But so far my research has turned up largely empty. There's a lot of stuff about how and why people live long, but little about the psychology of long life.

So, from your intuition to any sources you might have on the topic - what would it do to the mind of a regular human to live to 200 or 300 ? Can we extrapolate from centinarians or would something entirely new happen?


Update:

My long-lived people know and interact with each other, but do not live as a group together. Most importantly, they do not have their own culture or society beyond the level of, say, fans of some obscure TV series would have. Within the scope of daily life, they are largely isolated from others of their kind.

  • Would i be correct to assume that with this extended lifespan, comes improved resistance to disease and mental illness? and does this mean that the entire of a persons life is stretched out to 300 years, meaning a person is 30-40 before they reach puberty or is it just age added on at the end? – Blade Wraith Oct 23 at 10:21
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    I'm assuming slower aging after a mostly normal childhood development. For plausible deniability in the story it is important that the effect is not so noticeable (a child of 15 years with a development status of 5 would be very, very obvious). – Tom Oct 23 at 10:35
  • So perhaps its the end of puberty that causes the rate of aging to decrease? – Blade Wraith Oct 23 at 10:46
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    Something like that, yes. – Tom Oct 23 at 11:30
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    This is a very common trope in science fiction. You already mentioned Highlander. All of Heinlein's "Lazarus Long" stories, many episodes of Doctor Who, Poul Anderson's Boat of a Million Years, and many, many more, deal with the psychological and cultural aspects of long lifespans. – Eric Lippert Oct 23 at 21:23

This problem is occasionally touched on in Dr Who. The idea that not only have you been to the funerals of everyone you knew, but you've done it over and over again for centuries. It leads to a disconnection from the rest of society.

Everyone you meet is going to die. We know that, but to us it doesn't matter because it's so far ahead in our own personal time lines. When you're living that much longer than everyone else, it's not so far ahead. You're much more conscious of the brief lifespan of those you encounter, even those you've known for decades.

Your relationship with "normal" people changes:

Han is Chewbacca's third dog

Since you have a group of these people, they're liable to associate primarily with each other rather than with the shortlifers simply as the only people who've been around consistently for the past couple of centuries. They'll also probably get a feeling of superiority over the brief blips of a life that the normal people have once they have effectively socially isolated themselves.

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    "Immortality isn't living forever. That's not what it feels like. Immortality is everybody else dying." - The Doctor – Suthek Oct 23 at 12:59
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    For a slightly different point of view, I believe there is a Sandman story about a man being granted immortality. While he experiences a lot of ups and downs, he still wants to live forever because there is still so much to experience. I'd turn this into an answer, but I can't be bothered to look up the actual story :-D – eirikdaude Oct 23 at 14:31
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    @eirikdaude You're thinking of Hob Gadling. – azurefrog Oct 23 at 20:34
  • Re the long-lived "liable to associate primarily with each other", not necessarily so, and you give a good example yourself. I much prefer the company of dogs to the great majority of humans :-) – jamesqf Oct 24 at 17:33
  • @jamesqf, don't we all, but that's another story entirely – Separatrix Oct 24 at 17:34

I don't think you can extrapolate from centenarians. As Jimmy Stewart once said about age, "after 70 it's patch, patch, patch." I don't know anybody that has made it to 100, but several in their 80's and a few in their 90's, but these people were invariably fragile, and most of them were a bit mentally addled as well. Not one of them could run, for example. All had eyesight problems, mobility problems, and most had memory problems. And though I did not know anything of their sex lives, I truly doubt there was anything to know.

And due to their physical deterioration, those people were all pretty conscious of their impending demise, and alluded to it more often than young healthy people do. If nothing else, in their preference to review the past and things they lived through, rather than speak of the present or the future (in politics or entertainment or plans of the younger people they know). They know they've lived their lives, basically.

A person living to 300 would have to be pretty healthy for most of it, I don't think a story about somebody living 200 years as physically and mentally degenerate as a centenarian, being cared for and living in the past, would be that good.

I would presume that their "elderly stage" is no different than anybody else's: 20 or 30 years, and the same for their "childhood" stage. The human brain is not actually fully developed into an adult brain until the age of 24, give or take two years. Make it the same for your long-lifers. Put all the extension into the middle, and scale it: So between the ages of 25 and 275, they are like people between the ages of 25 and 75; and they age proportionately: That would be 250 years versus 50 years; so a factor of five.

That would hardly be noticeable at first; at 30 they look and feel like a 26 year old. But by the age of 75 (50 years older for normal people) they look like 30 year olds, and that will stand out. By age 125 they look like 40 year olds, etc; for every 50 years they only seem to age 10.

Their psychology, if they know this or figure it out, will change significantly toward a longer view. I'd expect them to invest more time in education, for example, because in the long run it costs them ten times less in terms of life years. If they have children, they are much more likely to become peers with them, they will look and act the same age and won't always be the "older and wiser", a 90 year old kid that looks and feels 31 isn't going to defer to their 110 year old parent that looks and feels 33; they will be far more equal.

These people are likely to engage in serial careerism, as well. If they are intelligent, I wouldn't be surprised if many became business types, and professors, and teachers, and lawyers, AND medical doctors, perhaps investors, entrepreneurs and politicians as well. Architects, engineers, astronomers, actors, writers, whatever they feel interested in, unlike us, they can pursue as a full career.

I mean MANY of those careers for a single person; because our society is geared to these careers lasting roughly 25-40 years from education to retirement, and these people have about 260 years (20->280) from education to retirement. If they hurry, they can fit in TEN of what we would consider "life-long" careers.

Finally, their psychology of lost loves (and perhaps family, if their children are not guaranteed to be long-lived) will have to change as well. For RL centenarians, everybody grows older at the same rate as they do. They lose friends and lovers, even children and grandchildren, but they never experience the reversal of somebody younger than they are, aging to be much older (in appearance) than they are.

These long-lifers might form life-long friendships amongst themselves, but amongst normal people are likely to consciously refrain from such commitments. Instead they are likely to "keep moving", making friends within a few years of their apparent age, staying a decade and moving on. I am not talking about any legal or identity ramifications of them not aging, there doesn't even have to be any. I am just talking about the emotional ramifications: When your best friend has aged twenty five years and you have aged only five, the difference is like a modern person having a best friend twenty years older, old enough to be their parent. 40 v. 20, or 50 v. 30. And for the long-lived person, how about the age difference after 50 years; when their friend is retired and in a nursing home, and they have aged from apparent 25 to apparent 35?

It's too much, in terms of energy levels, culture, aspirations and plans, love life, life interests, and everything else. It is better to break it off and start over, in a new town, or even a new country. That might be emotionally difficult, but might actually be better for both, to keep friends with aligned interests for their stage of life. For the same reason, I'd expect them to refrain from forming any deep emotional attachments to short-lived friends, i.e. to intentionally shy away form "best-friend" bonds at all, and maintain just co-worker and neighbor types of friends, bonds that can be easily broken with a few "it's been great" and "I'll miss you" and a "bon voyage" party. Get out of their lives without breaking their heart.

I'd say the same thing when it comes to dating. Either they need to "come out" to a love interest about their long life, or keep their relationships short, so they don't break hearts and ruin lives. (Assuming they are emotionally normal and care about other people, and aren't sociopaths.)

I imagine psychologically, this could be a relatively solitary life. If there are many of these long-lived people, they would self-segregate to form a virtual community for friends and romance. Especially if the trait is heritable; so parents do not risk outliving their children, seeing them grow from infants to decrepit elderly patients and die. I'm not sure but I think if I knew that was almost certain to happen, I would refrain from becoming a parent at all.

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    I think alot is depending when they get to know that they are long lived. Imagin telling a teenager "Hey, everybody you know, the girl/boy you like, your parents, you will outlive every one of those people" - can't be good for mental health – DarthDonut Oct 23 at 12:08
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    @DarthDonut To an extent; even though my parents were young (married at 15 and already pregnant), I always expected to outlive them; and have. But otherwise a good point, realizing you can expect to see your high school or college sweetheart grow as old as your grandmother while you still feel like a young 35, that could be pretty sobering. That you aren't going to 'grow old' with anybody. Especially if you have to figure that out for yourself! I still say the result is a more solitary life, with "episodic" friendships and love life, nothing permanent. – Amadeus Oct 23 at 12:14
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    I do think that if you were to only find out after your teenage years, the situation shown in the first Highlander movie makes sense, the person you fall in love with during high school you would marry, perhaps have children, and you would watch them grow old as you don't, then watch them die, and then spend the rest of your life alone. i think this would be fairly accurate. at least until you behead your lifelong enemy and understand the very fabric of reality of course – Blade Wraith Oct 23 at 12:57
  • @BladeWraith Plausible for that scenario, but since the OP gives us a "small group" I am presuming they know each other and aren't accidental mutations (or intentional mutations) that have to figure it all out on their own. And in the Highlander series you stop aging after your first death; so you don't grow old at all, and as far as you know are immortal (until you learn you can be permanently killed by beheading). So a pretty different scenario; here, I presume aging to an elderly state is only slowed, with the final years still a cascade of biological failures that combine to end in death. – Amadeus Oct 23 at 13:39
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    I have known centenarians, and they're not all alike. My neighbor (who died at 102) was physically active well into his 90s. (And more active than many younger people, too.) And while I'm nowhere near 100 yet, I hike, bike, ski &c as I always have, even though many of my contemporaries basically limit themselves to sitting in front of the TV waiting to die. The OP's naturally long-lived people would of course have a correspondingly long health span. – jamesqf Oct 23 at 19:16

Extrapolating from those who are 100 years old today towards what it would be like to live 200 or 300 years is most likely no more effective than a teenager's understanding of what it means to raise a family.

First off, there are plenty of examples in fiction. The Dr. Who series has several examples, each of which has a different approach. The Doctor, of course, has his approach, but he's not the only long lived character. The Face of Bo is another character with a completely different approach. Ashildir is yet another, with a completely different approach.

Ashildir is a particularly useful point of departure because she is human, and she points out a fundamental challenge in answering the question. The dominating factor in how your 300 year olds will think is whatever technology or biology lets them live that long. How does the brain age? In the case of Ashildir, she can't keep more than a lifetime of memories, so she has to keep entire rooms full of journals to remind her of lives she lived. It's not hard to imagine other approaches which would yield different results.

One of the major biological limits you will run into is the degeneration of the white matter of the brain. The white matter is the inside parts of the brain. They don't do any calculations like the thin layer of grey matter does, but they're chock full of long axons reaching from one part of the brain to another. These axons virtually all formed before birth, and were pruned to their general shape during early infancy. Damage to these axons is rather permanent, forcing your brain to take the long road to transmit information from cell to cell in the grey matter, rather than taking the neurological Autobahn through the middle. Indeed the corpus callosum, the mighty fabric of axons between the hemispheres of the brain, is made of this white matter, and does not readily regenerate when cut.

How we view the world after 300 years would be strongly influenced by whether these rules are changed by the process which let us live three times as long. What those changes are is completely up to you and your story.

If our 300 year old humans are nestled in a safe womb of connections which support them, nearly anything is possible. However, if these individuals are expected to be reasonably self sufficient, we can expect that their psychology is one which supports making it 300 years or more without dying. They would be very good at avoiding fatal risks, but they would need to continue to find ways to make themselves useful. This would means they are capable of taking small risks in a continuous manner.

Such a self-sufficient 300 year old would have a very different approach to learning. Right now, at my point in life, I have a desire to teach people some of the things I have learned. I have a very short period of time with which to do so. A 300 year old would have no problem not only waiting a generation to teach people what they know, but three, four, or even five generations!

A standing question to answer would be what their thoughts on death are. As has been mentioned in other answers, there is the Dr. Who mindset that living a long time means watching all your friends die. But there are other mindsets, particularly in Eastern philosophy, where death isn't such a daunting adversary. Given that many philosophies suggest that you can overcome a fear of death in one lifetime, surely someone who has three or four lifetimes can overcome it and do a great deal afterwards.

So you may have someone who has overcome everything. Or you may have a character like Lazarus Long from Heinlein's books which has lived long enough to love everyone worth loving, and faces a real existential crisis from this.

The only real limit I can think of to answering this question is that whatever answers you choose send a message to your readers. You have to choose what message you want to send, and tailor your long lived races to fit that message.

  • Btw, if you're interested in really extraordinary lifetimes, I find the most marked shift in psychology starts when the stars start to wink out. The death of one's sun really changes your outlook on things. – Cort Ammon Oct 25 at 7:05

Novelty will make the difference

We assume no age-related brain deterioration, so a 270 year old has the mental capacity of a normal 70 year old. Physical aging happens at the same pace. Stereotypically, old people become set in their ways, habits, attitudes and viewpoints. Learning new habits tends to be extremely difficult.

Perception of Family

Three hundred years is enough time to see around 10 generations of a family pass by. In a small, isolated farming community this will lead to some interesting insights that sound like "You look just like your great great grandfather when they were your age." Or, "Your voice is just as grating as your 8th great grandmother. Please stop talking." Family may become super important or it may become of no material use. It will depend on the circumstances.

Time Perception

Observe the following: As a person ages, the amount of time that is 'fast' for them increases. We note that toddlers are obsessed with waiting for even a few minutes because minutes are new to them. Conversely, silver haired elders talk about years or decades passing exceptionally easily. Assuming that something doesn't change, then we can expect that a tricentenarian would look at 50 year increments the same that way toddlers would look at a day.

This age induced time dilation may be unavoidable since the brain is very good at discarding information that is "The Same", so after lots of sunrises and sunsets, everything will look the same. The counter is to be constantly on the move and constantly simulated with new things in new environments.

Human psychology ultimately revolves around survival. Language, social skills, memory, spatial reasoning are all a result of the advantage that they convey to the individual that has them. For an old person, heck, even for a young person who lives in a single environment their whole lives, their brain and body will be finely tuned to that environment. Most human lives across history revolved around the geographic area of their birth and the plot of land they tended for food. Modern life is a relative exception where the place you die can be thousands of miles away from where you were born. (Mass migrations in the pre-modern world are obvious exceptions.)

Memory naturally discards older things because they are less useful, especially details. What did you have for dinner five days ago? I don't know either. Unless you get food poisoning, it doesn't matter.

Individual Differences

Initial conditions will matter a great deal. Some people are drawn to novelty and constantly need more of it. Others are the opposite; content with continual sameness. While people do change over their lifetimes, some basic attributes from youth don't change.

First of all, it depends on how many of these people you have and whether or not they interact with each other. This is from my own POV (not entirely based on any study but on examples I've come across and tried to develop myself), but having a group of people with extraordinarily long lives that know each other would have a different impact on their mental development over time than having isolated individuals who only - or mostly - interact with those with shorter lifespans.

Assuming they're somewhat isolated, and assuming they have "normal" human brains capable of retaining information the way a normal human brain would, they would probably lead normal lives until the effects of anti-aging started to show. This means you'd have a normal person to start off (I'm assuming their ageing slows down over time and not that they consistently age slower). They'd probably go through your known stages of grieving a few times, adding up to an increasing feeling of misplacement and the pain and confusion that might arise from that. As it's been mentioned before, I think the most likely outcome would be a detachment from either the human world or reality on its own. These people might grow to consider themselves superior entities, unbothered by affairs they'd outlive. They might grow a nihilist mindset, losing interest in life and interaction. They could cope with it and set long term goals for themselves that might seem unattainable or ludicrous for those with shorter lives. Or they could live in cycles.

The possibilities are endless and you could think of a few interesting nuances to add. The same way a normal person goes through phases (puberty, mid-life, etc), you could have long lifespan people have personality/lifestyle phases that would last years or decades and would seem permanent to others. You could even limit their brain capacity to only holding certain memories and have them forget huge chunks of their lives, or have mechanisms to select which ones to keep in mind - but I digress.

In any case, it's a really interesting theme to dive into :)

  • updated the question a bit. – Tom Oct 23 at 11:32

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