Feb 22nd 2020

The Nature of Creativity in Old Age

by David Galenson

David W. Galenson is Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago; Academic Director of the Center for Creativity Economics at Universidad del CEMA, Buenos Aires; and a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. His publications include Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity (Princeton University Press, 2006) and Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art (Cambridge University Press and NBER, 2009).


Does creativity diminish or disappear as we age? Some psychologists have believed that it does. In 1953, Harvey Lehman concluded that “Superior creativity rises relatively rapidly to a maximum which occurs usually in the thirties and then falls off.” He described what he called a gerontic paradox, that “the old possess greater wisdom and erudition…But when a situation requires a new way of looking at things, the acquisition of new techniques or even new vocabularies, the old seem stereotyped and rigid.” Colin Martindale later agreed that “In general, a person’s most creative work is done at a fairly early age,” and Dean Simonton concurred that “creativity seems to peak in early to middle adulthood.”

These conclusions might seem odd when we think of some creative landmarks of the modern era. Darwin published The Origin of Species at the age of 50. Tolstoy published Anna Karenina at 49, Dostoevsky The Brothers Karamazov at 59, Twain Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at 50, Proust the final volume of In Search of Times Lost at 56, and Woolf To the Lighthouse at 45. Rodin completed the Monument to Balzac at 49. Robert Frost published “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” at 48, and Elizabeth Bishop “One Art” at 65. Frank Lloyd Wright completed the New York Guggenheim at 76, Le Corbusier Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp at 63, and Frank Gehry the Guggenheim Bilbao at 64. Alfred Hitchcock directed Vertigo at 59, and Psycho at 61; Clint Eastwood directed Unforgiven at 62, and Million Dollar Baby at 74. Irving Berlin wrote “God Bless America” at 51, and “White Christmas” at 54.

Perhaps these are mere anomalies, isolated examples of creativity at older ages? Quantitative evidence says otherwise. A recent study of nearly 3,000 physicists found that a scientist’s most highly cited publication had an equal probability of being published at any point within the sequence of papers the scientist published.

The psychologists quoted above were wrong. Creativity is not the prerogative of the young, but can occur at any stage in the life cycle. What the psychologists failed to recognize is that there is not a single kind of creativity, but that in virtually every intellectual discipline there are two different types of creativity, each associated with a distinct pattern of discovery over the life cycle. The bold leaps of fearless and iconoclastic young conceptual innovators are one important form of creativity. Archetypal conceptual innovators include Einstein, Picasso, Eliot, Hemingway, Warhol, Godard, Plath, and Dylan. But there is another, very different type of creativity, in which important new discoveries emerge gradually and incrementally from the extended explorations of older experimental innovators. Darwin, Tolstoy, and the other late bloomers listed in the second paragraph of this article were all important innovators of this kind.

The single year from with Paul Cézanne’s work is most frequently illustrated in textbooks of art history is 1906 – the last year of his life, when he was 67.  Two years earlier, Cézanne wrote to the painter Emile Bernard that “I progress very slowly, for nature reveals itself to me in very complex ways; and the progress needed is endless.” The next year, Cézanne again told Bernard that he believed he had made some progress, “rather slow,” in his latest works, then added, “It is, however, very painful to have to state that the improvement produced in the comprehension of nature from the point of view of the picture and the development of the means of expression is accompanied by old age and a weakening of the body.” These letters expressed Cézanne’s conviction that above all two elements – the acuity of his perception of the subject, and the development of a technique that would allow him to express that perception – were critical to the improvement of his art, and his belief that both of these elements could only be the products of long and painstaking study.

Charles Darwin’s career was based on the conviction that theories should be the product of deep and detailed knowledge.  At 62, Darwin gave a concise statement of his formula for creativity, in a letter congratulating his youngest son on passing a college exam. The boy was not a distinguished student, and Darwin’s own mediocre record as a student clearly allowed him to identify with Horace. His encouragement to his son stressed that creativity did not depend solely on intelligence:

I have been speculating last night what makes a man a discoverer of undiscovered things, and a most perplexing problem it is. Many men who are very clever – much cleverer than discoverers – never originate anything. As far as I can conjecture, the art consists in habitually searching for causes or meaning of everything that occurs. This implies sharp observation and requires as much knowledge as possible of the subject investigated.

The psychologists quoted at the outset of this article assumed that the accumulation of knowledge and experience serves only to reduce the flexibility, and consequently the creativity, of the old. Greater knowledge, and associated entrenched habits of thought, do appear to constrain conceptual innovation, for they create barriers to the extreme simplifications that often characterize conceptual creativity, and they tend to erode the brash self-confidence of the cocksure young prodigy who can make bold leaps into the unknown because he is not yet aware of, and intimidated by, the complexity of his discipline.

But the recipe for experimental innovation is very different. Great experimental innovators develop not only vast stores of knowledge – “as much knowledge as possible of the subject investigated,” in Darwin’s words – but also the technical means by which to turn it into a novel contribution – Cézanne’s “knowledge of the means of expressing.” Both the accumulation of great knowledge and the construction of new technical means are “only to be acquired through very long experience,” in Cézanne’s words, and this implies that their greatest results will almost always appear late in a career. In the presence of appropriate technical expertise, greater knowledge affords the experimental innovator a larger and more trustworthy foundation for generalizations, to support ever broader and more far-reaching conclusions.

In dismissing increasing age as a source of creativity, Lehman and the scholars who followed him in this error were guilty of mistaking a part of creativity for the whole. Their error poses a barrier to understanding creativity, and makes a damaging contribution to ageism.

Old age and great experience may be lethal to the creativity of conceptual young geniuses, but they are the lifeblood of the innovations of experimental old masters.  Among the latter was Louise Bourgeois, a great experimental sculptor, who once declared, “I am a long-distance runner. It takes me years and years and years to produce what I do.” Bourgeois made her greatest work after the age of 80. When she was 84, and an interviewer asked whether she could have made one of her recent works earlier in her career, she replied, “Absolutely not.”  When he asked why, she explained, “I was not sophisticated enough.”


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May 19th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Thus experimental creativity could be witnessed, but not verbalized.  When five leading Abstract Expressionist painters founded an art school in New York in the late 1940s, they offered no formal courses, because, as Robert Motherwell explained, "in a basic sense art cannot be taught." ------ "Conceptual artists are ...... more inclined to use written texts to accompany their works in other genres.  In 1883, Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother, "One of these days I will write you a letter;  I shall write it carefully and try to make it short, but say everything I think necessary."
May 17th 2022
EXTRACT: "Unfortunately, it’s common for dark triad personalities to become leaders. ..... their ruthlessness and ability to manipulate means they attain positions of power quite easily. When a “dark” leader attains power, conscientious, moral people rapidly fall away. A government operating under these conditions soon becomes what the Polish psychologist Andrzej Lobaczewski called a “pathocracy” – an administration made up of ruthless individuals devoid of integrity and morality. This happened with Donald Trump’s presidency, as the “adults in the room” gradually headed for the exit, leaving no one but staffers defined by their personal allegiance to Trump. A similar decay in standards has occurred in the UK."
May 11th 2022
EXTRACT: "The proportion of US electricity deriving from wind and solar in the month of April climbed to 20%. Thus, the renewables total was 26.5 if we add in hydro. This statistic is unprecedented."
Apr 24th 2022
EXTRACT: "Every year, around 12,000 men in the UK die from prostate cancer, but many more die with prostate cancer than from it. So knowing whether the disease is going to advance rapidly or not is important for knowing who to treat." ...... "For some years, we have known that pathogens (bacteria and viruses) can cause cancer. We know, for example, that Helicobacter pylori is associated with stomach cancer and that the human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause cervical cancer." ....... "....we have identified five types (genera) of bacteria linked to aggressive prostate cancer." ...... "We examined prostate tissue and urine samples from over 600 men with and without prostate cancer," ..... "....men who had one or more of the bacteria were nearly three times more likely to see their early stage cancer progress to advanced disease, compared with men who had none of the bacteria in their urine or prostate."
Apr 13th 2022
EXTARCTS: "Steve Jobs dreaded turning 30, because he knew it would be fatal to his creativity: "It's rare that you see an artist in his 30s or 40s able to contribute something amazing." ....... "When Ford introduced the Model T, he was 45 years old" ...... "Ford’s Model T arrived only after a series of earlier cars – Models A, B, C, K, N, R, and S." .... "Sam Walton opened Wal-Mart No. 1 in Rogers, Arkansas, at 44, and discovered “that there was much, much more business out there in small-town American than anybody, including me, had ever dreamed of.” At 53, Warren Buffett wrote in his annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders that “your chairman, always a quick study, required only 20 years to recognize how important it was to buy good businesses.” "
Mar 29th 2022
EXTRACT: ".... Christie's web site calls Shot Sage Blue Marilyn [1964], to be auctioned in May, 'among the most iconic paintings in history', " ------ "Andy Warhol's annus mirabilis was not 1964, but 1962. This is recognized both by the market and by scholars. Thus in a paper published in the Journal of Applied Economics, Simone Lenzu and I found that in all auctions held during 1965-2015, the average price of Warhol's paintings executed in 1964 was significantly lower than the average price of those he made in 1962. And in a survey of 61 textbooks of art history published during 1991- 2015, whose authors included such eminent scholars as Martin Kemp and Rosalind Krauss, we found that fully 45% of the total of 137 illustrations of Warhol's paintings were of works from 1962, compared to only 12% of works from 1964. Thus not only do collectors value Warhol's works of 1962 more highly than those of 1964, but so do scholars of art history,.... "
Mar 29th 2022
EXTRACTS:".....there is plenty of space to scale. For internet-based businesses, the addressable total market is often large. In many areas, such as software, it spans the globe. Chinese estimates indicate that the average distance between seller and buyer on e-commerce platforms is roughly 1,000 kilometers (621 miles), compared to five kilometers for a traditional retail or service business." ------- "While the internet has removed many geographical barriers, high-growth companies cannot emerge just anywhere. In fact, though such firms can be found in more countries than ever, they remain concentrated in entrepreneurial hotspots. For example, of the 24 unicorns in Germany (as of March 2022), 17 are based in Berlin and five in Munich. Of France’s top 24 unicorns, 19 are based in Paris and one in a Paris suburb." ------ "Tech entrepreneurship has become global, but its beating heart remains local."
Mar 27th 2022
EXTRACTS: " We are supposed to be living in a post-ideological era, where everyone one is a cynic, not so gullible as to believe in anything anymore, least of all in the quaint notion of objective truth. This rejection of truth as such is among the great disasters to have befallen our relations with each other and between nations.  We appear to be beyond truth’s demise – we are now witnessing its unpleasant putrefaction and decay." ------ " If we want to grasp how ideology functions in America today, there is no better place to look than at the phenomenon of Trumpism. While he may be only a symptom, Trump himself is the quintessential embodiment of America’s moral and epistemic decline. " ------ "By its disavowal of truth and perpetuation of lies for the sake of self-aggrandizement, Trumpism represents an existential threat to this country and to the future of the Republic. It is a cancer that threatens whatever is good and decent in American life. " ----- "All they know is negative freedom – freedom from – but ignore the need for positive freedom, the freedom to… as in the freedom to flourish, to realize oneself in the world; to make and re-make oneself and the world through action."
Feb 14th 2022
EXTRACT: "In the decades since its inception, there has been heavy criticism directed towards the War on Drugs. These complaints include the increased incarceration rates, the increase in the number of prisoners in jail due to nonviolent offenses, uneven sentencing guidelines often based on the drug type and race, and suggestions of a racist component in terms of who was targeted by law enforcement. Various studies show that instead of reducing crime, the strict sentencing guidelines created more criminals and undermined many of the communities most strictly targeted by law enforcement. Long sentences for non-violent offenses made it difficult for those released to find work and weakened their bonds with family and their broader community."
Feb 2nd 2022
EXTRACT: "......... there are countries that have had a relatively high number of infections but which have still managed to keep their death numbers low – countries like Japan. It’s had 17,612 infections per million people yet only 146 deaths per million. This is despite almost one in three people in Japan being over the age of 65 and so at greater risk of severe COVID (the average age of people dying from COVID is over 80). What has kept the death rate there down? A recent Japenese study has proposed an answer. It reports that the risk of people dying of COVID in Japan is related to the microbes present in their guts. "
Jan 26th 2022
EXTRACT: "Then there was a revolution. In 1964, Bob Dylan created a new kind of popular music. The simple, clear love songs ...... were replaced by complex and opaque lyrics, filled with literary allusions and symbolism. Dylan rejected the role of craftsman: "I'm an artist. I try to create art." Nor were his songs intended to be universal: "My songs were written with me in mind." "
Dec 13th 2021
EXTRACT: " We all know that Father Christmas would struggle to deliver presents to everyone around the world without the help of his magical reindeer. But why were they chosen to pull the sleigh rather than any other animal? It turns out that the biology of reindeer makes them ideal for the job. Here are five reasons why."
Dec 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "Planting more forests is a potent tool for mitigating the climate crisis, but forests are like complex machines with millions of parts. Tree planting can cause ecological damage when carried out poorly, particularly if there is no commitment to diversity of planting. Following Darwin’s thinking, there is growing awareness that the best, healthiest forests are ones with the greatest variety of trees - and trees of various ages."
Nov 19th 2021
EXTRACTS: "At a time when the struggle between authoritarianism and democracy is so intense, if not fateful for the future of democracies, NATO and the EU must warn these countries [Editor's note: Poland and Hungary, EU and NATO, Turkey NATO] that they are on the precipice of being kicked out if they do not change their governing practice. They must be required to restore the principles of democracy by upholding universal human rights and abiding the rule of law, or else they will forfeit their membership and suffer from the consequences of their crimes." ------ "A narcissistic leader, such as Trump, whose hunger for power seems to know no limit, has happily sacrificed the good of the country on the altar of his twisted ego. America’s democracy cannot be repaired unless he and those who helped him are held accountable and face the weight of the law."
Nov 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many people who go through intense trauma, for example, become deeper and stronger than they were before. They may even undergo a sudden and radical transformation that makes life more meaningful and fulfilling. Indeed, research shows that between half and one-third of all people experience significant personal development after traumatic events, such as bereavement, serious illness, accidents or divorce. Over time, they may feel a new sense of inner strength and confidence and gratitude for life and other people. They may develop more intimate and authentic relationships and have a wider perspective, with a clear sense of what is important in life and what isn’t. In psychology, this is referred to as “post-traumatic growth”. "
Nov 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Notably, Murdoch thinks that really knowing or understanding another person is a difficult task: “It is a task to come to see the world as it is”. According to the Freudian psychology Murdoch subscribes to in The Sovereignty of Good, humans are prone to “fantasy” – refusing to face the truth because it can damage our fragile egos."
Nov 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "People do not believe false information because they are ignorant. There are many factors at work, but most researchers would agree that the belief in misinformation has little to do with the amount of knowledge a person possesses. Misinformation is a prime example of motivated reasoning. People tend to arrive at the conclusions they want to reach as long as they can construct seemingly reasonable justifications for these outcomes."
Oct 28th 2021
EXTRACTS: "Brood with me on the latest delay of the full release of the records pertaining to the murder of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963. That was 58 years ago." -----"Mark my words: ...... No one who remembers 1963 will live to see the US government admit the full truth about Kennedy’s murder. And the American people’s faith in democracy will continue to fade. There is only one way to prevent this, and that is to release every record, withholding nothing – and to do it now."
Oct 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "..... we may defy the warnings of modern medicine, convinced of our own superiority. Researchers at the University of Chicago Divinity School reported half of their participants, all of whom indicated some religious affiliation, agreed with the statement “God will protect me from being infected”. To cope with our dread of death, we delude ourselves into thinking we are invincible: death might happen to other people, but not to me."
Oct 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Wes Anderson’s new film The French Dispatch is about the final issue of a magazine that specialises in long-form articles about the goings-on in the fictional town of Ennui-sur-Blasé. The film is an anthology of shorts representing three of the articles. A piece by the magazine’s art critic (Tilda Swinton) explores the life and late success of the abstract artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro). Talented from a young age, Rosenthaler pursued art with a dogged determination that drove him to slowly lose his mind." ---- "Like everything else, mental illness is understood within the context of its time. In their study of melancholy and genius Born Under Saturn, the art historians Margot and Rudolf Wittkower show how Renaissance artists embraced mental alienation. This was shown by a withdrawn, slothful gloom. Such heavy sadness was considered both the symptom and the price of divine inspiration." ---- "Today, the association of creativity and mental illness often implies regression from an adult and orderly state of mind to one that is primal, impulsive, or infantile. The artist in Anderson’s film is such an example: he is noisy, impetuous, and extravagantly mad. And it is while he is at his “maddest” that he paints his best work." ---- "Here I explore the work of four painters whose work has been shaped by various mental illnesses, highlighting how the idea of the “mad artist” need not be tied up with a loss of control but rather a bid to gain it."