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Creativity and the Aging Brain

Use the powers of the aging brain to enhance creativity.

The aging brain resembles the creative brain in several ways. For instance, the aging brain is more distractible and somewhat more disinhibited than the younger brain (so is the creative brain). Aging brains score better on tests of crystallized IQ (and creative brains use crystallized knowledge to make novel and original associations). These changes in the aging brain may make it ideally suited to accomplish work in a number of creative domains. So instead of promoting retirement at age 65, perhaps we as a society should be promoting transition at age 65: transition into a creative field where our growing resource of individuals with aging brains can preserve their wisdom in culturally-valued works of art, music, or writing.

In a recent study, psychologist Lynn Hasher and her group at the University of Toronto found that older participants were (as many seniors will attest!) more distractible than their younger counterparts. However, members of this older, distractible group were also better able to use the distracting information to solve problems presented later in the study. This work, along with other studies on aging and cognition, suggest that the aging brain is characterized by a broadening focus of attention. Numerous studies suggest that highly creative individuals also employ a broadened rather than focused state of attention. This state of widened attention allows the individual to have disparate bits of information in mind at the same time. Combining remote bits of information is the hallmark of the creative idea.

Other studies show that certain areas of the prefrontal cortex involved in self-conscious awareness and emotions are thinner in the aging brain. This may correlate with the diminished need to please and impress others, which is a notable characteristic of both aging individuals and creative luminaries. Both older individuals and creative types are more willing to speak their minds and disregard social expectations than are their younger, more conventional counterparts.

Finally, intelligence studies indicate that older individuals have access to an increasing store of knowledge gained over a lifetime of learning and experience. Combining bits of knowledge into novel and original ideas is what the creative brain is all about. Thus, having access to increased internal warehouse of knowledge provides fertile ground for creative activity in the aging brain.

Many seniors are already making a mark for themselves in creative fields. Consider Millard Kaufman, who wrote his first novel, the hit book Bowl of Cherries, at age 90. Then there's 93-year-old Lorna Page, who caused waves in Britain with her first novel A Dangerous Weakness. Following in the footsteps of Grandma Moses (who did not take up painting until in her 70's), former patent attorney John Root Hopkins turned to art in his 70's and had a showing of his work in the American Visionary Art Museum at age 73. There are numerous examples throughout history of the creative power of the aging brain: Benjamin Franklin invented the bifocal lens at the age of 78, Thomas Hardy published a book of lyric poetry at age 85, Frank Lloyd Wright completed the design of the Guggenheim Museum in New York at and 92, and Giuseppe Verdi wrote Falstaff, perhaps his most acclaimed opera, at the age of 85.

I suggest that we change our expectations of the elderly. Instead of referring to "the aging problem," we should expect our seniors to be productive throughout the lifespan. I challenge each citizen, whether you are currently a senior citizen or a senior-to-be: first, consider one life lesson that you would like to pass on to future generations. Second, decide upon a creative medium in which you could embed this lesson - perhaps a novel or a painting or a musical piece. Then make it the work of your post-retirement years to grow proficient in that medium and to produce a work that embeds your message.

Kim, S., Hasher, L., & Zacks, R.T. (2008). Aging and a benefit of distractibility. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 14, 301-305.
Horn, J.L. & Cattell, R.B. (1967). Age differences in fluid and crystallized intelligence. Acta Psychologia, 26, 107-129.
Lehman, H.C. (1949). Some examples of creative achievement during later maturity and old age. Journal of Social Psychology, 30, 49-79.
Salat, D.H. et al. (2004). Thinning of the cerebral cortex in aging. Cerebral Cortex, 14, 721-730.