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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.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

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  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
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  • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

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