Creativity isn't just for the young, new research shows

It all depends on what type of creativity we're discussing.

The troupe Lifting, composed of dancers aged 62 to 85 years, performs the play "For a no, for a yes" directed by French choreographer Anne Martin, on March 26, 2018, at the Coloc' de la Culture in Cournon-d'Auvergnez (Photo: Thierry Zoccolan/AFP/Getty Images)
  • There are two peaks to creativity: One in our mid-20s and another 30 years later.
  • Conceptual innovators set out with explicit goals that they carefully execute, while experimental innovators are synthesists, collecting ideas and incorporating them as they age.
  • The study focuses on 31 Nobel laureates in economics.

Over the weekend, my wife and I watched The Creative Brain on Netflix. Being a fan of David Eagleman's writing, I was eager to see how his ideas translated onto the screen. As expected, a lot of depth and nuance was sacrificed in hopes of achieving a pop culture-level science documentary. Still, the hour-long documentary was inspiring, featuring creative geniuses—Robert Glasper, Nick Cave, Michelle Khine, even Kelis in her new role as a chef—carrying the dialogue along.

While Eagleman offers ideas about why humans are creative—most animals are input-output-oriented without the benefits of a robust prefrontal cortex—he does not dive as deep into styles of creativity. In a youth-obsessed culture, the youngest of us are often honored as creative geniuses, yet there's another age group that appears to have equal skin in the game: 50-somethings.

That's what Bruce Weinberg and David Galenson, professors in the Department of Economics at Ohio State University, claim in their new study, published in De Economist. Focusing on Nobel laureates, they identified two peak ages of creativity: 25 for conceptual innovators and mid-50s for experimental innovators. While their focus was on economists, they feel comfortable stating that this data transcends discipline.

Conceptual thinkers set out with explicit goals that they carefully execute. The authors write, "Their innovations appear suddenly, as a new idea produces a result quite different not only from other artists' work, but also from the artist's own previous work." They cite artists and thinkers such as Herman Melville, TS Eliot, Albert Einstein, and Pablo Picasso as examples of creatives that achieved breakthrough work in their youth.

The Creative Brain | Official Trailer

Experimental thinkers are more vague. They don't have an explicit goal in mind. They work as synthesists, collecting ideas and incorporating them as they age, which results in a later creative peak. "The imprecision of their goals leads them to work tentatively, by a process of trial and error. They arrive gradually and incrementally at their major contributions, often over an extended period of time." On this front, Virginia Woolf, Charles Darwin, Paul Cézanne, and Robert Frost are exemplary late bloomers.

The authors criticize previous studies that find "peak creativity" in the late 30s to early 40s. Psychologists, they write, focus on disciplines instead of thinkers within disparate disciplines; economists tend to treat disciplines as the unit of analysis, which is the wrong way to approach creativity. By focusing on individuals across disciplines instead of disciplines themselves, the authors came to a much different conclusion regarding when we hit our creative stride.

Their focus is 31 notable Nobel laureates in economics. Conceptual economists, they write, tackle precise problems and solve them systematically, placing them in the younger cohort. In this regard, inexperience is a virtue, as they tend to combat established economists without concern of heritage or pedigree. By contrast, experimental economists attempt to solve broader problems. "The more evidence they can analyze, the more powerful their generalizations, so the most important experimental innovations are often the product of long periods of research."

The authors used the Social Science Citation Index, collecting the number of citations each economist garnered. As the mark of scholarship is citation, they looked for each thinker's threshold for important contributions; they also noted each economist's single best year. They note that this provides a "widely accepted, objective method" that levels the playing field for each laureate.

Portrait of Pulitzer prize-winning American poet Robert Frost (1874 - 1963) during a visit to Oxford, England, 1957.

(Photo by Howard Sochurek/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

The results provide polar opposites: "It appears that the ability to formulate and solve problems deductively declines earlier in the career than the ability to innovate inductively." This is especially important because, as the authors note, modern hiring practices favor younger candidates. A prejudice has emerged in economics (and most other fields) in the false belief that younger generations are more creative. As the paper shows, it depends which type of creative you're discussing.

This study isn't the only recent news challenging this notion. In The Wall Street Journal, entrepreneur and author Rich Karlgaard, summating his new book, Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement, notes our obsession with "30 under 30"—and he's the publisher of Forbes—and "most influential teen" lists. While short-term memory peaks at 25, for example, our emotional intelligence doesn't peak until our 40s or 50s. He continues:

"What about creativity and innovation? That realm must belong to the young, with their exuberance and fresh ideas, right? Not necessarily. For instance, the average age of scientists when they are doing work that eventually leads to a Nobel Prize is 39, according to a 2008 Northwestern University study. The average age of U.S. patent applicants is 47."

We need both types of innovators in our world: The upstart surge of youth and the refined patience of aging. The creative tension between them keeps a necessary balance in every discipline – artistic, financial, and otherwise. Identifying what type of creative you are helps. But one thing is certain: It's never too late to put your knowledge to creative use.

--

Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

A still from the film "We Became Fragments" by Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller, part of the Global Oneness Project library.

Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Stories are at the heart of learning, writes Cleary Vaughan-Lee, Executive Director for the Global Oneness Project. They have always challenged us to think beyond ourselves, expanding our experience and revealing deep truths.
  • Vaughan-Lee explains 6 ways that storytelling can foster empathy and deliver powerful learning experiences.
  • Global Oneness Project is a free library of stories—containing short documentaries, photo essays, and essays—that each contain a companion lesson plan and learning activities for students so they can expand their experience of the world.
Keep reading Show less

Four philosophers who realized they were completely wrong about things

Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?

Sartre and Wittgenstein realize they were mistaken. (Getty Images)
Culture & Religion

Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways. 

Keep reading Show less

The history of using the Insurrection Act against Americans

Numerous U.S. Presidents invoked the Insurrection Act to to quell race and labor riots.

The army during riots in Washington, DC, after the assassination of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., April 1968.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • U.S. Presidents have invoked the Insurrection Act on numerous occasions.
  • The controversial law gives the President some power to bring in troops to police the American people.
  • The Act has been used mainly to restore order following race and labor riots.
Keep reading Show less

Experts are already predicting an 'active' 2020 hurricane season

It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

Image source: Shashank Sahay/unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

Scroll down to load more…