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Age and Creativity
There’s no real age limit on creativity.
Psychologists who study creative accomplishments throughout the life cycle generally find that creativity peaks between the ages of mid- to late 30s or early 40s. That’s why Paul McCartney doesn’t write songs as good as he used to?
Research by UC Berkeley psychologists (2017) suggests that creativity generally tends to decline as we age. Through a series of experiments, it was found that adults resorted to less creative thought processes than children.
A popular perception is that creativity and old age do not mix?
Creativity is the domain of the young — and to certain extent this is true, yet not in the way that many of us would expect.
The youthful decline
Our decline in creativity does not start when we are 40 or 50. It starts at the age when we enter school. The scary coda is that by the age of twelve, our creative output has declined to about 2% of our potential, and it generally stays there for the rest of our lives.
The price of acceptance
At around the age of twelve then we start to learn the price of living in the modern world. Conformity.
To live with other people, we must follow their rules and values, which seem to be more about what you cannot do than what you can do? This is especially true for the creatives amongst us, those who dare to stray form the norms of ‘proper jobs’? We are straight-jacketed into doing what others do.
When someone is being creative, they are also rather unpredictable, which can make living with them an uncertain and perhaps threatening experience, therefore we are taught to be polite, to be nice to people, including not scaring them with our creative thoughts.
Education (schools), especially, drill conformity into us. We learn that there is one true way of thinking. We learn that there is one right answer for every problem, and that this is the one in the teacher’s head. Success is based on knowing what is wanted, not what is interesting. We are told to ‘Read The Question’ in essays and examinations. Marks are awarded for regurgitation, not for creative and lateral thinking.
Universities are often worse than high-schools which are worse than junior schools. We learn to reference every assertion and never, never to question the ultimate knowledge of our teachers.
By the time we leave full-time education, we are functional members of society, but our creative potential has been stifled. The good and great have commented on this in the quotations on education.
There is even a whole school of philosophy Conventionalism) that describes how new knowledge is constrained.
A caveat: Academic knowledge is not (all) bad (no knowledge is bad)?
Much of it is interesting and can (should be) used in many ways. It is just that when all you learn is to know and to repeat knowledge, then there is little creativity going on. Knowing (regurgitating) facts is not critical thinking and does not create learners who can think for themselves.
As adults, we do become less creative, but not in the traditional way. Our continued creative decline is more due to falling into a number of cognitive traps than the fading of old age.
Where creativity does fade away is when we do not use it. ‘Use it or lose it’, as they say. One of the biggest culprits here is the simple pattern of human habit. Once we start doing something one way, we get comfortable with it and then do not change or vary it. We find the best route home and then we always drive that way, even if it is choked with traffic.
We also get stuck in cliches and familiar conversations. Few of us read much (‘Too busy!’), fewer of us continue to study and fewer still innovate for the fun of it.
The expert trap
Those of us who do study and become ‘experts’ can easily fall into the expert trap, where experts can spend more time defending their hill than building it further.
We repeat this in our roles in organizations.
When you are a manager, you find you have the rapt attention of everyone below you, and it is very easy to assume that they are in thrall of your intelligence and wisdom?
The trap here is to assume that you are all-knowing and to pronounce with great certainty on all and sundry. It is also a trap to feel obliged to the expectations of knowledge that others put upon you and feel unable to say ‘I don’t know, let’s give it a try’. Managers must manage, as they say?
And the cycle repeats at home, where parents take a similar role, being the fount of all knowledge for their children, who learn that being an adult means being certain and certainly not being creative.
Intelligence is, to some extent related to creativity, and brighter people generally are able to be more creative. Although a funny thing happens at around an IQ figure of 120, as described in Edward de Bono’s book, Serious Creativity. Above this level, creativity seems to drop off. This is quite probably due to these people falling into the expert trap.
Another reason is the premature closure of quick thinking, where bright people ‘get it’ in seconds and hence stop any further divergent thinking. Guy Claxton, in his book Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind, tells of the benefits of slower and more exploratory thinking.
The secret of a fuller life is staying creative…. keep your creative juices flowing and you will stay ahead of the pack? Do different things? The best way of staving off creative ossification is to keep doing different things. Read different books and papers?
‘An open mind is a (free) clear mind’
Go to different places for your holidays. Talk to different people. Listen to them and seek to synergize and synthesize. Take every opportunity to regenerate your generative powers.
The not-so geriatric effect
But what about the effects of aging. We are born with a fixed number of brain cells and they increasingly die off after the age of 50, and even faster beyond 70!
This may be true, but, barring mental illness, the effect is miniscule in comparison with the habitual ossification effect. People who have stayed creative through their lives are way above others, not only people on the final lap but also those much younger than them. With practice, you can get better at creativity, which puts a creatively active 60 year old streets ahead of a stultified 30 year old?
Creativity even affects longevity. It has been proven that people who stay mentally active live longer even than those who stay physically active. If you go to the mental gym every day, then your alertness will keep you going longer?
The latest research from molecular biologists is that brain cells and neural pathways are created daily at a pace that results in what essentially is an entirely new brain structure every few months. For that matter, our bodies—even our bones—are similarly rebuilt, molecule by molecule, every couple of years, and, in the case of our stomach linings, every couple of days.” However, sadly this effect, of neuronal birth, declines with age.
Regeneration raises questions about how memories and capabilities are sustained, although I suspect that the ‘use it or lose it’ principle is still true.
Knowledge is power – Stay young, never stop learning
Thanks for reading