Creativity Improves with Age
(no. 39) Creativity may actually increase with age, by Stephen P. Williams
But first, this: Hats off to two old dogs who fought it out to be president of the United States. Whatever you think of each of them, you’ve got to admire their stamina and willpower.
Photo by Kon Karampelas
Creativity is the act of imagining or creating something new. The could be a new way of looking at the coronavirus that leads to a more effective treatment. It could be devising a way to circumvent the alarm on a celebrity’s private vault in order to steal her emerald necklace. I believe it also accounts for our ability to look in a nearly empty kitchen cabinet and figure out a recipe using only sage, elbow macaroni and sardines. However, most often we associate creativity with art, music and the like.
As you get older, do you think about your own creativity? Over the years I’ve met so many people who postpone their artistic pursuits -- that novel, those paintings -- until a time when they have enough money to support themselves as artists. Usually that means retirement. But do we still have the chops to create when we get old? Or is it a gift only for the young?
Many of the experts, who’ve been making scientific inquiries into the links between creativity, or lack of it, and aging, since at least 1835, say there’s a general pattern to our creative capacities. According to them (but not, me), creativity increases in the 20s, peaks by the late 30s, and then starts sliding downhill (along with the rest of our bodies). According to these beliefs, a person will be half as creative at age 80 as they were at age 40.
These are generalizations of course, because some people have one big burst of creativity, resulting in, say, a hit movie, when they are 20 and then never do much again. And some groups, such as philosophers, seem to peak later than others, such as mathematicians.
But I don’t believe in these theories of creative decline, and not just because I haven’t experienced it myself. There’s plenty of reason to believe that creativity gets easier and more profound as we age. We just have to access it. Evidence suggests that it’s not a decline in brain power that leads to less creativity, but rather a decline in will, or perhaps desire, as one ages.
In fact, research shows that aging brains might actually be more prone to creativity than younger brains. That’s because aging brains are less inhibited than younger brains, and disinhibition is a characteristic of creativity. These brains have a broader area of focus that allows them to consider more information. Older brains also have more access to something called crystallized knowledge, which is based on prior learning and experience. That also allows for better creative flow.
Finally, the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls our self-consciousness and emotions, gets thinner as we age. Some scientists speculate that this means we are less concerned with pleasing others, or wanting to impress them. That makes us less inhibited, so we can express our creative ideas without so much fear of being criticized.
For inspiration, consider:
Ben Franklin invented bi-focals when he was 78
Doris Lessing published her last novel at age 89
Frank Lloyd Wright finished designing the Guggenheim Museum when he was 92.
Verdi wrote Falstaff at age 85.
So dive in. Make stuff. Forget about what anyone thinks. Create and enjoy the pleasures of your labor.
Monet smoking and painting in his 70s.
Matisse drawing at 76
I use specialized headgear to access my creativity.
Please let me know if there’s anything you’d like me to cover in the next newsletter. Happy fall to everyone. firstname.lastname@example.org