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Creativity and Aging

Updated on June 8, 2016
John Paul Quester profile image

Paul is a mostly retired academic; he holds advanced degrees in philosophy and psychology.

Leonardo da Vinci: self portrait
Leonardo da Vinci: self portrait

What is creativity?

As defined by Dictionary.com, creativity is ‘the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.’ Which, I would add, may be useful in solving a variety of problems both theoretical and practical.

This simple definition will do for a start, for what concerns me here more specifically is the question of whether human creativity changes as we progress from early to late adulthood.

How can we study age related changes in creativity?

Two main approaches have been taken to address this question.

The first one, adopted by most empirical psychologists, assumes that creativity is not to be regarded – as some scholars do – as a mysterious and quasi-mystical potential of the human mind, available only – and infrequently - to a few exceptionally gifted individuals. Rather, they claim, creativity is a general human ability, like intelligence or memory in this respect, possessed by every member of our species, albeit in widely differing amounts.

Accordingly, researchers have developed tests that measure creativity in the general population, just as was done more or less successfully for intelligence and memory. These tests can be administered to representative samples of our population: say, to three samples of peoples in their twenties, in their forties, and in their seventies respectively, and observe whether these groups differ in their ability to solve the problems presented by these tests. Upon obtaining average scores for the young, the middle aged, and the older group, researchers can then establish whether the differences between these scores, if any, are statistically significant. If they chose their samples properly, and used valid and reliable tests and appropriate research designs, they can trust their results and extrapolate them to the general population from which the samples were taken.

Another line of research focuses instead on the study of individuals involved in explicitly creative endeavors, and especially of the more eminent among them. As such, it is based upon an historical analysis of the creative output of these individuals throughout their lifelong career.

Let us take a look at the results of both types of research, beginning with the one outlined last.

Does the amount of creative activity change with age?

A relatively straightforward way to measure age related changes in creativity is by determining whether the amount of creative output varies with age: whether, that is, creators produce more or less as they get older.

Overall, if one plots creative output in general as a function of age, productivity in adulthood (starting around age 20) rises fairly rapidly to a definite peak and thereafter declines gradually until the output is about half the rate at the peak. But this generalization has to be qualified: for the average age of the productive peak, and the size of the post-peak decline, vary depending on the area of creative endeavor.

At one end, some fields (e.g. poetry, pure mathematics, and theoretical physics) show early peaks, around the late 20s to early 30s, with steep descents thereafter, the output rate eventually shrinking to less than one-quarter of the maximum in old age.

At the opposite end, some fields (e.g., prose fiction, history, philosophy, scholarship) show a slow rise to a comparatively late peak in the late 40s or even 50s, with a small drop-off afterward.

Yet other fields (e.g., geology, biology, psychology) show age curves between these two extremes, with a maximum output rate around age 40 and moderate decline thereafter, output in the last years being half the rate of the peak years. The reasons for these differences are quite complex and cannot be briefly discussed here.

Importantly, interindividual differences in lifetime output are substantial. In particular, a small percentage of creative workers in any given domain is responsible for the bulk of the work in their field.

Does the quality of creativity change with age?

In sum, the amount of creative work in the arts, the sciences and other academic disciplines overall declines significantly as we get older. But this result only captures the quantitative aspects of creativity. What about the quality of the creative output? Could it be for instance that, as they get older, creative individuals produce less but the quality of their work improves, so that in a sense they trade quantity for quality?

One way to address this question is by calculating the age curves separately for major creative works and for minor creative works. It turns out that the resulting curves are basically identical. In other words, those periods in a creator’s life that result in the highest number of masterpieces also see the highest number of mediocre works, and vice versa. In sum: overall, creators do NOT trade quantity for quantity as they get older.

Note however that the fact that as they get older the overall quality of their creative production does not increase over the earlier years does not mean that it does not change. Some research shows that creative workers and their work acquire qualities in late life not observed earlier, a finding referred to as the ‘late style’ This is a fascinating topic which is best left for another hub.

So far I have briefly reviewed some results of the research on individuals whose whole life is centered upon creative endeavors. What about age related changes in creativity as they occur in the general population? As noted earlier, this line of research calls for the administration of psychometric tests of creativity to representative samples of individuals of different age in order to measure changes that may occur over time.

Overall, the evidence gathered by this approach suggests rather consistently that in the general population creativity declines both quantitatively and qualitatively as we get increasingly older.

What factors account for creativity changes as we age?

What causes this apparent decline in creativity? The default explanation is that it results from the progressive deterioration of the central nervous system’s level of functioning, as is the case for some components of intelligence, memory, and other forms of cognitive activity.

However, several researchers contend that creativity changes may be due mostly to a host of factors other than physiological aging per se.

Some claim that current tests of creativity may be ill suited to the proper determination of age related changes in creativity. Also, the apparent decline in creativity may actually represent a transfer of creativity to areas in which it is hard to measure, or it is not measured at all. Others still point to a possible youth bias in the assessment of creative abilities (both in the general population and in the practice of arts and sciences).

The differences between different age groups may also reflect cohort effects. Today's young people, for instance, are more encouraged to be creative than older people ever were.

Other factors that may penalize older people include physical impairments, increased familial responsibility and a greater involvement in administrative duties (in academia, cultural institutions etc.), both of which limit the time allocated to creative work relative to early adulthood; negative social expectations about the creativity of the elderly; reduced opportunity: how many scholarships are granted to older people who wish to try their hand at music, painting etc? You guessed right.

Some researchers point out that exceptional creative ability has been shown repeatedly by men and women in advanced old age, thus proving that the creative flame can glow undiminished though the last years. Nor should we ignore that the emphasis on average measures of creativity hides the existence of very large interindividual differences in creativity among the aged.

Several of the factors outlined above are likely to contribute to a decline in creativity with age; however, it is doubtful that they can account for more than a fraction of it in both the general population and among outstanding creators.

One important line of evidence in this regard comes from studies of eminent creators showing that the age related changes in creativity referred to previously are invariant across different cultures and historical periods. For instance, the gap between the productive peak years for poets and prose authors respectively is found in every major literary tradition throughout the world, across time, and for both living and dead languages. This cross-cultural and trans-historical invariance strongly suggests that the age curves reflect mostly genuine, universal, age related changes rather than the contingent effects of a number of sociocultural factors, which as such can vary considerably across cultures and historical eras.

Acknowledging that creativity tends to decline with advancing age does not imply that we might as well abandon our efforts to express ourselves creatively as we age. Like most other human abilities, creativity can be improved, regardless of age. Some of us could discover later in life creative abilities they never knew they possessed. Yet others can actually improve their creativity relative to their earlier years, average data notwithstanding.

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    • John Paul Quester profile image
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      Paul Quester 2 years ago from North America

      Thanks for your comment, Yasir. Appreciated.

      jp

    • yasirchohan profile image

      Yasir chohan 2 years ago from Reisterstown

      Oh interesting hub an about one of my favorite topics too. It was very informative, and the first self portrait is really eyecatching!