Grey-haired Creativity

John le Carré just published 24th novel at age 85

The subject of aging and creativity takes on special urgency for grey-haired artists who have yet to achieve “breakthrough.” I happen to know a few of those.

The conventional view is that creativity – the ability to come up with unusual ideas – declines as we get older. Imaginations grow sclerotic along with our arteries. Alison Gopnik and Tom Griffiths, psychology professors at U.C.-Berkeley, have been doing research in this area and recently published a paper about their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They also summarized their findings in an essay in the New York Times.

Their experiments segregated participants into four groups: 4- and 5-year-old preschoolers; 6- to 11-year-olds; 12- to 14-year old teenagers; and adults. They designed two groups of experiments, one that might be called “mechanical” (configuring blocks to make a machine light up), and the other “social” (imagining motivation for behaviors). They found that the age cohorts ranked differently for the mechanical problems than for the social problems.

With the mechanical problems the findings were linear, fitting the conventional view that creativity steadily goes downhill with age. The preschoolers were most likely to come up with the creative, unusual solution. Somewhat less creative were the school-age children. Adolescents showed a dramatic drop in mechanical creativity. They and the adults were most likely to stick with the obvious explanation even when it didn’t fit the data.

However a different pattern emerged with social problems. Again, preschoolers demonstrated more creativity than the 6-year-olds or the adults. But in the social realm teenagers were the most creative. Gopnik and Griffiths speculate this is because in the teen years we are furiously focused on how the social world is organized. (Remember that hornets nest known as the high school lunchroom?)

These findings led the researchers to suggest a parallel with a model of cognitive processing that computer scientists call exploration and exploitation. When adults face a new problem their impulse is to exploit the knowledge about the world they’ve acquired so far. By such means we usually find a pretty good solution that comes close to what we have stored away in our memory bank.

But it is by exploration – trying novel, unobvious solutions – that we generate new bits of knowledge and stock our storehouse of experience. The downside of exploration is we are likely to go down dead-ends, to waste time toying with ideas that will never work. Gopnik and Griffiths further speculate that our dual cognitive approaches may account for a unique characteristic of our species: an exceptionally long childhood and prolonged adolescence. Lengthy early life stages allow for lots of exploration. Later in life we are adept at exploitation because it rests on a foundation of knowledge acquired during the prolonged exploration stages.

As I learned about this research I was struck by how the creative work in writing fiction is like the exploration work children excel at. One rule of thumb for scriptwriting is that only one out of ten ideas for story events will be any good; the other nine get tossed. An implication of this is that to write a good script or novel you’ve got to generate lots of ideas and resist clutching the first one that comes to mind. The initial ideas are likely to be more the product of exploitation than exploration. This logic also lends credence to the oft-heard advice that artists in the process of creation must shed their adult probity and think more like a child.

The good news is that even elderly artists can do this. I was heartened recently by the appearance of new work by novelists in their mid-80s: The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories by Penelope Lively and A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré. Clearly, these octogenarians have retained the cognitive capacity for exploration, as referenced by Gopnik and Griffiths.

One other area of brain research may also help explain the creativity of veteran artists like Lively and le Carré. They have been inventing unusual and compelling characters and stories for many decades. During the countless hours spent making things up and writing them down, those authors have been adding extra layers of myelin around the neurons that are active in exploration. As old age has descended, those neurons are still earning their keep, carrying the creative juice below all that grey hair.

Use it – and use it a lot – or lose it. And try to use it the way a child does.

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