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Gray Matters: Aging and the Creative Brain
by Craig Bickhardt,
2003 All Rights Reserved. Printed with Permission

Not long ago a music publishing company songplugger in Nashville advised one of her young staff-writers that a collaborating partnership with me would be unproductive because I was "past my prime". I was in my early 40s at the time. While I knew her assertion was absurd, I decided to find out what the medical research revealed about the effects of aging on creativity. The evidence presented in this article challenges long-held beliefs that peak creative performance naturally coincides with youth. Brilliant young talents will always be the lifeblood of the music industry, but I believe that an unfounded bias against maturity is counter-productive.

"Most notions about aging and the brain are based on folklore rather than fact," says Dr. Zaven Khachaturian, a director of research at the U.S. National Institute on Aging. The folklore may be coloring our perception of the truth concerning aging and creativity.

For example, many of us still believe the old myth that we lose thousands of brain cells every day that can't be replenished. Harvard neurobiologist Gerald Fischbach has laid this myth to rest. His cell counting research has shown that while the brain's neuronal cells can shrink or grow dormant with age, most are retained throughout life. Scientists readily admit that the brain loses about 10 percent of its weight due to cell death and atrophy but the average brain also contains more neurons than it can use in a normal life span. If there is, as it appears, a large excess reserve in brain function, then even a 10 percent decrease in brain weight may be negligible.

Research has also shown that an old brain is every bit as capable as a young brain when it comes to making new connections between the nerve cells. The connections, called dendrites, are microscopic fibers that enable the neurons to communicate with one another. This in turn makes the process of creative thought possible. Normal mental activity causes the neurons to sprout many new dendrites. These dendrites fall away again with mental stagnancy but there is no scientific basis for believing that age is a direct factor in how well the brain cells perform their functions.

While brain cells may not be entirely interchangeable, in certain areas where neurons have degenerated the remaining cells appear to be filling in the gaps and taking up responsibilities so that nothing is appreciably lost. Some damage may occur but new pathways are constantly being networked inside the healthy brain throughout its life. In this way older brains are capable of remarkable rewiring in order to compensate for losses.

Additional studies show that mental activities related to occupation may not decline until the age of 75 or later. Repeated activity enables the mind to bridge more direct routes and to create the most efficient strategies for dealing with creative problems. As a result there appears to be no physiological reason for a decline in creative skills such as the poetic use of language, the techniques of painting, or the balancing of harmonic structure in music. Nor is there any reason to suspect a diminishment of the ability to bring any of these skills to bear on some new inspiration provided by the rich stockpile of memory and gathered experience stored within the older brain. It is clear that age alone presents no barriers to creativity, but co-existent diseases such as Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia as well as stroke may have an impact on brain function and can mar artistic ability.

Harvard psychologist David Perkins has studied the traits of creative people. He has found that one of these traits is the desire to simplify what is perceived as chaos so as to find unifying value in life. Artists themselves since time immemorial have understood this unifying drive. As Thomas Wolfe explained in his essay THE STORY OF A NOVEL (Charles Scribner's Sons, New York 1936), "It was a process that began in a whirling vortex and a creative chaos and that proceeded slowly at the expense of infinite confusion, toil, and error toward clarification and the articulation of an ordered and formal structure." Henry David Thoreau put it this way; "It is the faculty of the poet to see present things as if also past and future; as if distant or universally significant."

But is creative clarity only a boon of youth? Definitely not, say the researchers. At the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, Paul Baltes has made a study of "wisdom". His test criteria contain such qualities as insight, sound judgment, a sense of proper perspective, and the ability to weigh opposing values and come up with solutions to problems, all useful tools in the endeavor of creative organizational thinking. His findings indicate that older people consistently out-perform younger people on the wisdom scale. Baltes adds, "In all areas of functioning in which age means more access to information, older people may be better off than young ones." It would appear that wisdom and experience, two hallmarks of the mid-life to late-life period, might contribute much to the mind's ability to find order in chaos thus fashioning new models of creative expression.

The speed with which our brains process information may decline with age but our knowledge and our skill in using a lifetime of acquired information does not. The older brain's sophistication stems from its complex adaptive ability. It constantly recreates itself gaining new insights and wisdom as it goes. Some researchers believe that it is the young mind that is actually at a disadvantage in that it tries to compensate for a lack of crucial information by sheer speed.

Creativity in the human mind is a complex symphony performed by many "players". Within the brain's multi-layered anatomy there remain countless unsolved mysteries. Marion Diamond, neuroanatomist at the University of California at Berkley, has done some research on the role of the brain's glial cells. One function of these cells is to support and nourish the neighboring neurons. But there appear to be a greater number of glia in the more creative brains among us. It is uncertain whether these special cells increase as a result of the creative use of the mind throughout a lifetime or whether they are simply present in greater quantities in certain gifted minds at birth, but either way it is clear that they remain nearly unaffected by age. They are able to divide and renew their numbers (something that the age susceptible neurons can't do) and Diamond has discovered them in great density in her recent study of a portion of Albert Einstein's highly creative brain, meaning that they were thriving when he died in his late seventies. She concurs that the brain's "wonderful plasticity remains throughout life."

If the scientific research isn't enough, we need only look at the evidence that our great body of world art provides for us. Among our artistic geniuses we find numerous great works created in middle and advanced years. Bach, Verdi, Strauss, DiVinci, Beethoven, Coleridge, Yeats, Wagner, Cervantes, Galileo, Kant, Einstein, Haydn, Brahms, O'Keefe, not to mention Grandma Moses, who took up painting when she was 78 and continued past her 100th birthday, all gave us some of their most important contributions late in their lives.

The Lehman study published in 1953 under the title "Age and Achievement" examined the variation of creative output in many different artists over their lifetimes. It revealed a creative "age curve" showing productivity beginning to increase when the artist is in his or her twenties, peaking in the late thirties to mid-forties, and declining thereafter. The study has been criticized because it ignored certain influential factors; for example the early deaths of many of the artists. In addition, Lehman evaluated creative product and not creative potential.

According to Dr. Dean Keith Simonton, Professor of Psychology at the University of California (Davis), Lehman's "age curve" is rather a "career curve". He states that, "The age curve is the repercussion of the manner in which a creative career naturally unfolds." Factors such as success and fame, increased professional and personal responsibilities or poor general health and diminished energy levels (none of which directly effect the brain's potential to continue it's creative activity) may have interfered with the actual creative output. He adds, "No theoretical or empirical reason exists to expect the absence of creativity in senior citizens." Further evidence shows that "an individual who has a late start can anticipate a later peak and a higher rate of output in the last years."

Simonton also speculates that individuals "who exhibit exceptional creative potential tend to make a splash quite early in life, we often forget how creative they were later on, even when their creative optima appeared at more mature ages."

Variances can be seen between different types of artistic careers, however. For example, poets tend to peak in their late 20s to early 30s but the peak for literary prose happens at a later age. Creative mathematicians may expect almost no variance at all in output over their careers. Although Lehman's results may appear discouraging at first glance, Simonton believes that the intrinsic creativity remains somewhat constant in many individuals and points out that Samuel Coleridge, possibly recognizing the need to adapt his own exceptional powers to age, shifted his creative work away from the lyric poetry of his youth to the areas of criticism and philosophy later in his life.

During an artist's career it is interesting to note that the years that yield the greatest number of significant works are also the years in which the greatest number of insignificant works are created. In other words, there is a probability factor to artistic success. More attempts mean a better shot at posterity. However, Simonton says, "on a product for product basis, a work by an octogenarian has about the same odds of having an impact as a work by someone in their 40s or even 20s." He adds, "Perhaps productivity is one thing and creativity quite another... Elderly individuals of creative discipline may be producing fewer notable creations than they did in their prime, yet these individuals are proportionately yielding less 'rubbish' as well."

Further studies have shown that not only is creativity a life-long potential, it may be as life extending as healthy exercise. In 1972 Dawson and Baller published the results of a study in which an elderly group of subjects were taught oil painting for 18 weeks and compared with another group of similar age that received no instruction. Two years after the instruction 72% of the experimental group were still painting. A follow-up analysis ten years later revealed that 67% of the instructed group were still living compared with only 38% of the control group; 100% of the surviving experimental subjects were mentally alert as compared with only 62% of the living control subjects; and all of the experimental group were still physically active while 38% of the control group were confined to bed. The obvious therapeutic value of creative activity cannot easily be overlooked. Perhaps one day the encouragement of artistic expression will be the prescription of choice for curing the ailments of age.

Our popular culture pays homage to the raw ore of its youth. Often the gold of maturity is cast off with the slag. Yet the later years can be a time of total mastery, a time when new spiritual depth is found, an age when penetrating wisdom is attained. As long as the creative brain is not debilitated by illness and as long as society recognizes the value in contributions made by the elderly artist there is no reason why a life cannot be filled to the brim with creative expression. As George Herbert once proclaimed, "And now in age I bud again". Creativity can be regenerative. It is only our crystallized attitudes and our huge misconceptions about aging that cause us to think in terms of prime and decline. Society's low expectations for the "past the prime" years may have a negative effect by restricting or even stifling creativity more than we realize. If the human mind is its own fountain of youth, there is no limit on the beauty that can spring from it any age.


Craig Bickhardt's songs have been recorded by over 100 artists including Ray Charles, B. B. King, Trisha Yearwood, The Judds, and Allison Krauss. He is the recipient of 9 ASCAP Awards for his hits, which include four number one records: "In Between Dances", "It Must Be Love", "Turn It Loose" and "I Know Where I'm Going". His songs were also featured in the Academy Award winning film "Tender Mercies". As a member of SKB Craig helped put the trio on the country charts with his songs "Givers and Takers" and "This Old House". His latest CD is titled "Easy Fires". It's available on his website at http://www.craigbickhardt.com/.
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