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Does creativity fade with old age?

Are we doomed to lose our creativity while we get older?

Some people say we do. They declare that it’s a matter of “using it while you have it”.

A few examples are the writers Philip Roth and Doris Lessing, who felt that an end has come to their energy and creativity at a certain stage in their life.

Even though they stopped writing at an honorable age (Roth stopped when he was 79, Lessing was aged 89), both of them didn’t continue writing and creating right up until their deaths.

So it does seem that creativity has an expiry date.


The truth is more complex

In contrast, there are certainly examples of people being productive until the day they die.

Norman Mailer was such a person. He kept publishing books until death, and his output of drawings (which were inspired by Picasso’s style) increased by the end of his life.

Mark Walton, author of the book “Boundless Potential: Transform Your Brain, Unleash Your Talents, Reinvent Your Work in Midlife and Beyond” says that decline of creativity with age is not a certainty:

“What’s really interesting from the neuroscience point of view is that we are hard-wired for creativity for as long as we stay at it, as long as nothing bad happens to our brain” – Mark Walton


And according to Howard Gardner, professor of cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education:

“You should start [being creative] when you are young. But there is no reason whatsoever to assume that you will stop being creative just because you have gray hair.”


Are we hardwired to be creative until old age?

There are a few arguments to support that idea.

The first is that the brain undergoes certain changes as it ages

People tend to excel at math and science early on partly because, studies show, the frontal lobe is still building myelinization — the insulating sheath around axons in the brain — through one’s early 40s, said Rex Jung, assistant professor in the department of neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico. Better myelinization means more effective transmission of messages, leading to more precision and focus.

But after the early 40s, demyelinization starts to occur, with potentially interesting results for creativity.

According to Jung:

“That’s where artistic expression perhaps benefits from demyelinization.”

— source: the Washingtonpost


The reason for this is that this loosening of connections in the frontal lobe interrupts associative thoughtstreams. Instead of having “trains of thought” that are centered around one idea, there are more individual, seemingly unrelated thoughts popping up all the time.

From this perspective, demyelinization might help create more of an “empty state” in the brain where new ideas can surface more easily.

In fact, the looser frontal lobe organization may actually heighten creativity in older people:

“You have lots of data at your hands, and you have . . . fewer brakes on your frontal inhibitors, and you’re able to put things together in more novel and useful ways,” Jung said.

“When you see an increase in people’s creative undertakings in retirement, it may not be just because they’re retired and have more time on their hands; it may be because the brain organization is different.” -Rex Jung


Inner pressure

The second reason why older people may be more creative, is because they feel a sense of urgency.

They’re literally running out of time. And they feel it.

As Valerie Trueblood, 69, a writer from Seattle says:

“I think for many older people there’s a time of great energy. You see the end of it, you just see the brevity of life more acutely when you’re older, and I think it makes you work harder and be interested in making something exact and completing it.”


Society, not biology, making us uncreative

It might be that the greatest power that is forcing us into a non-creative state is society itself. We have learned how to perceive old age. We have learned to have expectations on how it will be when someone gets older.

Some people assume that as we age we’re kind of expected to just “veg out” and sit in front of the television a lot. That’s a real perception many have of older people.

And there’s the danger of having this image so imprinted in our brain and minds that it might actually turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It would be great to be creative right up to the age of 89, just like Doris Lessing did. And would it not even be greater to be creative right up until the day you die?


What do you think?

What is the image you have of old age and old people? And how creative do you think you will be when old?


This article was in part inspired on the article in the Washingtonpost.


-next: How to keep being creative well into old age

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