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

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

  • 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.

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

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

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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Want to forge stronger social bonds? Bring beer.

New research shows that a healthy supply of locally-sourced beer helped maintain Wari civilization for 500 years.

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  • A new analysis of an ancient Wari brewery suggests chicha helped maintain the civilization's social capital for hundreds of years.
  • Civilizations throughout the ancient world used alcoholic drinks to signify kinship, hospitality, and social cohesion.
  • The researchers hope their findings will remind us of the importance in reaffirming social institutions and sharing cultural practices — even if over coffee or tea.

Beer is history's happiest accident. Though the discovery probably happened much earlier, our earliest evidence for beer dates back roughly 13,000 years ago. Around this time, the people of the Fertile Crescent had begun to gather grains as a food source and learned that if they moistened them, they could release their sweetness to create a gruel much tastier than the grains themselves.

One day a curious — or perhaps tightfisted — hunter-gatherer hid his gruel away for a safekeeping. When he returned, he found the bowl giving off a tangy odor. Not one to waste a meal, he ate it anyway and enjoyed an unexpected, though not unpleasant, sensation of ease. By pure happenstance, this ancestor stumbled upon brewing.

That's one possible origin story, but we know that our ancestors learned to control the process, and beer took a central role in Fertile Crescent civilizations — so central that Professor Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that beer, not bread, incentivized hunter-gatherers to relinquish their nomadic ways.

Beer may also be proof of a God who wants us to be happy (Dionysus?), because the beverage* would be independently rediscovered by peoples across the ancient world, including those in China and South America.

One such peoples, the pre-Inca Wari Civilization, made beer, specifically chicha de molle, a critical component in their religious and cultural ceremonies. In fact, a study published in Sustainability in April argues that the role was so important that beer helped keep Wari civilization intact for 500 years.

Brewing social capital

Twenty years ago, a team of archaeologists with the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, discovered a brewery in Cerro Baúl, a mesa in southern Peru that served as an ancient Wari outpost. The brewery contained original equipment, clay storage vessels, and compartments for milling, boiling, and fermentation.

The team recently analyzed these on-site vessels to uncover the secrets of the Wari brewing process. Removing tiny amounts of material found in the spaces between the clay, they were able to reconstruct the molecules of the thousand-year-old drink. They then worked alongside Peruvian brewers to recreate the original brewing process.**

Their molecular analysis revealed several key features of the beer: The clay used to make the vessels came from a nearby site; many of the beer's ingredients, such as molle berries, are drought resistant; and though alcoholic, the beer only kept for about a week.

These details suggest that Cerro Baúl maintained a steady supply of chicha, limited by neither trade nor fair weather, and became a central hub for anyone wishing to partake. The Wari would likely make such trips during times of festivals and religious ceremonies. Social elites would consume chicha in vessels shaped like Wari gods and leaders as part of rituals attesting to social norms and a shared cultural mythology and heritage.

"People would have come into this site, in these festive moments, in order to recreate and reaffirm their affiliation with these Wari lords and maybe bring tribute and pledge loyalty to the Wari state," Ryan Williams, lead author and head of anthropology at the Field Museum, said in a release. "We think these institutions of brewing and then serving the beer really formed a unity among these populations. It kept people together."

The Wari civilization was spread over a vast area of rain forests and highlands. In a time when news traveled at the speed of a llama, such distinct and distant geography could easily have fractured the Wari civilization into competing locales.

Instead, the researchers argue, these festive gatherings (aided by the promise of beer) strengthened social capital enough to maintain a healthy national unity. This helped the Wari civilization last from 600 to 1100 CE, an impressive run for a historic civilization.

Bringing people together (since 10,000 BCE)

A Mesopotamian cylinder seal shows people drinking beer through long reed straws. Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Of course, the Wari weren't the first civilization to use beer to reaffirm bonds and maintain their social fabric. Returning to the Fertile Crescent, Sumerians regarded beer as a hallmark of their civilization.

The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the adventures of the titular hero and his friend Enkidu. Enkidu beings as a savage living in the wilderness, but a young woman introduces him to the ways of civilization. That orientation begins with food and beer:

"They placed food in front of him,
They placed beer in front of him,
Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food,
And of drinking beer he had not been taught.
The young woman spoke Enkidu, saying:
"Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land."
Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,
He drank the beer — seven jugs! — and became expansive
and sang with joy.
He was elated and his face glowed.
He splashed his shaggy body with water
and rubbed himself with oil, and turned into a human
."

Tom Standage, who recounts this scene in his History of the World in 6 Glasses, writes: "The Mesopotamians regarded the consumption of bread and beer as one of the things that distinguished them from savages and made them fully human." Such civilized staples not only demarcated their orderly life from that of hunter-gatherers, they also served a key role in their culture's unifying mythology.

Furthermore, Standage notes, Sumerian iconography often shows two people sipping from waist-high jars through reed straws. The earliest beers were consumed in a similar fashion because technological limitations prevented baking individual cups or filtering the beverage. But the Sumerians had the pottery skills to make such cups and filter the dregs. That they kept the tradition suggests that they valued the camaraderie brought by the experience, a sign of communal hospitality and kinship.

The ancient Greek's similarly used alcohol as a means of maintaining social and political relationships — though their drink of choice was wine.

During symposiums, upper-class Greek men would gather for a night of drinking, entertainment, and social bonding. In Alcohol: A history, Rod Phillips notes that symposiums were serious affairs where art, politics, and philosophy were discussed throughout the night and could serve as rites of passage for young men. (Though, music, drinking games, and sex with prostitutes may also be found on the itinerary.)

Of course, we can amass social capital without resorting to alcohol, which has been known to damage social relationships as much as improve them.

In the 17th century, London's coffeehouses stimulated the minds of thinkers with their caffeine-laden drinks, but also served as social hubs. Unlike the examples we've explored already, these coffeehouses brought together people of different backgrounds and expertise, unifying them in their pursuit of ideas and truths. Thus, coffeehouses can be seen as the nurseries of the Enlightenment.

Relearning ancient lessons

The Field Museum archaeologists hope their research can help remind us the importance social institutions and cultural practices have in creating our common bonds, whether such institutions are BYOB or not.

"This research is important because it helps us understand how institutions create the binds that tie together people from very diverse constituencies and very different backgrounds," Williams said. "Without them, large political entities begin to fragment and break up into much smaller things. Brexit is an example of this fragmentation in the European Union today. We need to understand the social constructs that underpin these unifying features if we want to be able to maintain political unity in society."

So, grab a beer or coffee or tea, spend some time together, and raise a glass. Just try not focus too much on whether your friend ordered Budweiser's swill or an overpriced, virtue-signaling microbrew IPA.

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