Changes in Creativity With Aging

Simonton (1999) demonstrated that creative productivity is a function of age. In general, there is a sharp increase in productivity between the ages of 20 and 30 years. Productivity appears to reach a peak between the ages of 30 and 50 and then declines over the next several decades. This peak, however, changes somewhat with disciplines. In some disciplines, such as pure mathematics and theoretical physics, most of the important creative work is performed when these people are in their 20s and 30s and then there is a rapid fall off, but in biology and medicine many of the most important creative works are often performed by people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. In other disciplines, such as art and music, people remain very creative even into old age. For example, Giuseppe Verdi wrote his first opera, Nabucco, at the age of 29 and wrote Falstaff at the age of 80. Although this division at first appears to relate to the domain of creativity, aesthetic (e.g., art and music) versus data driven (e.g., chemistry and physics), Simonton (1999) mentions that poets flourish when they are young and geologists might have long creative careers. Simonton also suggested that it appears to be career age (the number of years that a person has been creative in a domain) rather than purely chronological age that predicts the downturn.

The reason people are seldom creative until they reach their 20s and 30s is probably dependent on two major factors. The first factor deals with brain maturation. One of the major theses of this book is that creativity depends on a high degree on connectivity within the brain, and I have already described the role of the subcortical white matter and the frontal lobes in creativity. The frontal lobes and other regions of the brain do not fully mature until people reach their 20s. The second factor has to do with the acquisition of skills needed for creative inspiration and production. A person might not fully acquire these skills until that person reaches his or her 20s or 30s. What remains unclear, however, is why with aging there is a decrease of creativity. Simonton (1999) stated, "There have been numerous attempts to offer theoretical explanations of these empirical results, most of which fail because they can not accommodate the facts."

Simonton's model of creativity is primarily based on Darwinian principles of random variation followed by selection. Simonton attempted to develop a multifactorial mathematical model that has as its first major determinant "initial creative potential." Simonton suggested that this potential constrains the number of ideational variants a person is able to generate during his or her lifetime. A second major factor is the age at which creative people start their careers. Two other factors are related to the discipline. According to Simonton's model, the reason creativity decreases with aging is that people run out of variants or new ideas.

The Darwinian model of evolution suggests that genetic changes are random and although most of those changes reduce the ability of an organism to survive, rarely does a genetic alteration induce a phe-notypic change that increases this mutant ability to survive and procreate. Creative ideas have many sources, and chance and random variation often can play an important role in creativity. A good example of such a chance occurrence is Alexander Fleming's leaving his petri dishes open and on a counter and leaving the window open window so that the mold could be blown into the laboratory, land in the petri dishes, and kill the bacteria. Thus, observing chance anomalies might lead to the awakening of creative new ideas at any age. New ideas, however, are not always dependent on chance occurrences or the observations of anomalies. Earlier we defined creativity as the ability to understand, develop, and express in a systematic fashion novel orderly relationships. Michelangelo's ability to sculpt David from a piece of marble cannot be explained by ideational variation and selective retention. He was able to see David in the marble block, even before he lifted his hammer, and he "released" this beautiful masterpiece from this stone. Perhaps the creativity that does not rely on seeing an anomaly, but rather comes from within, is more likely to run out after years of creative production. In medicine, creativity often stems from seeing an anomaly. Prepared minds can detect anomalies at almost any age, which is perhaps why biologists, who repeatedly observe anomalies, have longer creative careers than do theoretical physicists.

Although creative people's decreased productivity with aging might be related to the exhaustion of new ideas, there also might be biological factors. In the next sections I discuss some of these possible biological factors.

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