Why We Get More Creative as We Age


Why We Get More Creative as We Age

Marilee Shapiro, 101, poses for a portrait next to one of her sculptures that is titled “The Way” at her home in Washington.

Why We Get More Creative as We Age

Grandma Moses is a symbol for creativity sparking in one’s elder years.

As we age, we just might become more creative. Really? Yes. Would you believe that when we were five, we used 80% of our creative ability and that by the age of twelve, our creativity had fallen to about 2% of our potential. Because schools work to make us good members of society and that means conformity, we began to just accept ideas instead of using our brains to create them.


Let’s examine the anatomy and physiology of the brain. Myelination, the growth of fatty insulation on our neurons, keeps brain circuits running smoothly. That process isn’t completed until young adulthood when the prefrontal cortex is fully matured. But magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has revealed that in some parts of the brain, including the temporal lobe (visual memory, language, meaning and emotions), myelination is still going on into a person’s 50s and 60s. That’s good news for the prospect of being creative during the third stage of life. 


Now think back to your middle or working years. Remember how important it was to be an expert in your field of endeavor? It was essential to have a brain that knew the context of one’s work sphere, a brain that focused on one area and often didn’t have the time or the inclination to consider new ideas. In fact during those years we argued for our formed ideas and pushed aside new ones. Maybe we only read a certain kind of book or watched a certain sport or shared solidly formed beliefs that we were not willing to challenge. Our brains were or may still be ossifying. 


But we can all stop the ossifying process, age actually helping us, because the brain changes. First, certain brain skills are affected by aging—mathematicians, physicists and chess players will tell you this, acknowledging that brain speed slows down. But the brain compensates by enhancing creativity! Neuroscientist Roberto Cabeza of Duke University says that there is a reorganization in brain function and that the two hemispheres of the brain begin to cross talk to one another as part of this compensation. The left brain reaches to the right for help and voila! insightful, creative ideas are the result. Howard Gardner, professor of cognition and education at Harvard, relates that in fields like law, psychoanalysis and perhaps history and philosophy, “you need a much longer lead time, and so your best work is likely to occur in the latter years.” Good news for thinkers and writers in those fields.


Neurosurgeon Rex Jung states: “That’s where artistic expression perhaps benefits from demyelinization.” He notes that less efficient connectivity (that slowing down of brain speed) can mean a loosening of associations that allows ideas to flow more freely. “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. 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.”


Guy Claxton, in his book Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind, writes of the benefits of slower and more exploratory thinking. A psychologist, Claxton argues that our brains work best when we allow what he calls the “undermind” or unconscious to chart the way. He champions being less analytical and more creative. He acknowledges that most humans learn from society to solve problems under pressure and to use thinking as a means to achieve results. But he believes that patience and even confusion–rather than rigor and certainty–are the essential precursors of wisdom.


Here are some well known creative people, their occupations and their ages. Novelist Doris Lessing, productive till 89; Marilee Shapiro, 101, still sculpting in D.C.; Paul Bocuse 87, chef and Michelin winner still oversees his restaurants; Igor Stravinsky, first worked with 12-tone music creation in his 70s; Grandma Moses, started the paintings that made her famous at 76; Frank Lloyd Wright died at 91, just before the opening of his 532nd work, the Guggenheim Museum; Valerie Trueblood 69, Seattle writer who published her novel, “Seven Loves,” and two short story collections in her 60s. And there are many more in many other fields still working and creating. So—don’t sell yourself short; yes you are no longer in your 20s and looking ahead, but the brevity of the years left can energize and make you work harder. You will use your time well. And there is so much out there to discover and learn and enjoy. Let’s all get creative and get going.


“Enhanced creativity is associated with greater satisfaction.” NEA research director Sunil Iyengar “One-trick artists become automatized, they become very habit-borne. They’re not continually challenging themselves to look at life from a new angle.” Michael Merzenich, professor emeritus of neuroscience at the University of California at San Francisco. “Those people who have from the beginning developed complex lives with multiple interests and multiple talents, and continued to develop psychological complexity and tolerance for ambiguity, those people continue to do very well in later adulthood,” said Gary Gute, professor and director of the Creative Life Research Center at the University of Northern Iowa.

  • Engage in learning
  • Expose yourself to knew things
  • Think outside the box
  • Break through older beliefs.

And if you have any ideas as to how you sparked your creativity, please share. It’s never too late to enjoy the rush of good feelings when the painting, photograph, poem, gardening project, sculpture, collage, textile project, article or novel is a reality. Let’s hear it for aging and creativity!!

Thanks to Google Images

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2 thoughts on “Why We Get More Creative as We Age

  1. My father has always been a phenomenal photographer. As a child I enjoyed pouring over the photo’s he’d captured during his time overseas in the Navy. As I grew up he was busy being dad, working everyday, building his ‘career’ and I don’t remember as many photographs, however now that we are all grown and he’s looking towards retirement, the camera is a much bigger focus in his life. For the last ten years or so, I’ve been afforded the opportunity to see the world in so many different ways because Dad is always photographing it and I beg him to send me stuff. I notice his photographs have taken on greater modes of creativeness. He’s finding new angles and ways to capture images. He uses light differently and through the use of digital imagery he creates even more altering his photos in subtle ways. I believe age has definitely made Dad more creative and I think he enjoys it as well. I think once he retires he will take the photography world by storm!

    • I agree. His photos of our daughter’s wedding were wonderful. It’s always good to have a creative outlet. Thanks for writing, Natalie. Happy 4th. Beth

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