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The BS Behind the Myths of Youth, Age, and Creativity

There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age.” Charles Schulz

I would like to call bullshit on a commonly held belief about creativity, namely, that humans are at their most creative and innovative when they are young, specifically between the ages of twenty and forty. If you’re letting this misconception stop you from exploring your beautiful, creative self, please, read on.

Let’s face it, ageism is a thing, and it is all over the place when it comes to looking at human creativity.

Google “At what age are people most creative?”, and the answers that come back are predominantly that people in their twenties through forties are at their peak creatively. It’s been noted, for instance, that Nobel Prize winners in economics have a high point of creativity in their twenties and again in their fifties. But those numbers leave out a lot of information without answering some vital questions, one of the most important being, “Just what kind of creativity are we talking about here, and how are we measuring it?”. 

The myth behind mathematicians’ creativity in general is that they seem to have an early creative supernova, and then go relatively dormant…in math, at least. Part of the reason is thought to be that when we’re young, we can think more recklessly and break rules, something that becomes less likely as we age. However, there is no quantifiable evidence or data to back up the widely held belief that mathematicians become less creative as they age. 

In other words, the answers to this question of age as it relates to creativity is pretty much all subjective, opinion based doo doo.

Perhaps those opinions should be qualified, as in: people in their twenties through forties who have never had the opportunity, shown an interest in, or been encouraged to be creative, become less creative as they age. But even then, I would add, unless at some point they engage in a creative activity and start exploring different ways of expressing their creativity. I believe, barring some kind of illness or injury that would prevent it, that 1) creative endeavors can begin at any age, and 2) there’s no reason to assume human beings can’t be richly creative until the day they die; there are just too many compelling examples to think otherwise.

But what happens to people already in the creative arts? All evidence points to the fact that creativity not only grows, it can expand exponentially. This is partly due to the fact that our brains develop and make new connections no matter what the age of the person in question. And the same can happen to people just starting out at a later age.

If we look at composers, for instance, we often see astonishing creative growth as time passes. Here’s a personal example: when I was in college, I checked out a recording of Beethoven’s last string quartets, written in his early to mid-fifties (he died at fifty-seven). I wasn’t familiar with them, and one of my professors had mentioned that all musicians should be. I put it on my record player in my dorm room, and I still remember my disbelief when it started playing. Surely this could not be a composition of Ludwig van Beethoven, I remember thinking. I actually lifted the needle to pick up the record and examine the label….but sure enough, it confirmed that I was listening to Beethoven’s Late Quartets. 

For something that had been written about one hundred fifty years before I heard it for the first time, it sure sounded like it belonged to a future composer....or maybe even someone from another planet altogether. And Beethoven was stone deaf when he wrote these pieces - old, sick and deaf, yet he still managed to pump out some of the most profound and creatively unique music ever written. 

The same is true of a painter like Claude Monet. He began his “Water Lilies” series of his flower garden in Giverny, France when he was fifty-seven, and stopped when he was eighty-six (the year he died). He just kept exploring and creating, and trying new things.

Claude Monet “Water Lilies”

Claude Monet “Water Lilies”

One of the reasons creators can pull this off well into their later years is a part of the brain called the fusiform gyrus. This small region is known to be quite a bit larger in humans than any other species on Earth, and is particularly well developed in people in creative occupations. Its function is to deal with and comprehend anything metaphorical by easily connecting with other areas of the brain. For instance, when phrases like “Juliet is the sun”, a line from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet or “All that glitters is not gold” are used, the meaning is usually understood best by people with a well developed fusiform gyrus.

In some creators, a condition called synesthesia (meaning “joined sensation”) forms, a type of brain cross wiring. Creators are eight times more likely to develop synesthesia than non-creators, enabling them to think more metaphorically, or link two relatively unrelated things together (such as a young woman and the sun). Synesthesia also shows up in some people as coloring for specific numbers or musical notes, so that any time a number or tone appears in their everyday lives, they see or hear it in a specific color.

So, to engage in creative activity at any age also means that you are building more neuro connectors, something that wouldn’t happen without that activity. You are growing your fusiform gyrus, a part of the brain vital to creativity!

Some people think themselves “old” when they pass thirty, others don’t ever seem to consider age as a part of who they are. But here’s what I’m asking: however you think about age, DO NOT let it stop you from expressing yourself. There is only one you, and the rest of us need to know who you are and how you feel, because it eases and informs and makes more interesting our own trek through life. Find that part of yourself, and keep at it. Kick the naysayers out of your way, and join us on this journey.

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