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.”


Browse articles by author

More Essays

Sep 16th 2021
EXTRACTS: "Hyperbaric oxygen therapy involves breathing pure oxygen in a pressurised chamber. In the chamber, the air pressure is increased two to three times higher than normal air pressure. It is commonly used to treat decompression sickness (a condition scuba divers can suffer from), carbon monoxide poisoning,......" ---- "Blood flow to the brain is reduced in people with Alzheimer’s. This study showed increased blood flow to the brain in the mice receiving oxygen therapy, which helps with the clearance of plaques from the brain, and reduces inflammation – a hallmark of Alzheimer’s." ----- "The researchers then used these findings to assess the effectiveness of oxygen therapy in six people over the age of 65 with cognitive decline. They found that 60 sessions of oxygen therapy, over 90 days, increased blood flow in certain areas of the brain and significantly improved the patients’ cognitive abilities – improved memory, attention and information processing speed."
Sep 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "Hollywood for years called on Charles Boyer to typify one French look –  bedroom eyes, sly maneuverings, the dismissive look. A face of another type, the massive mug and narrow eyes of Charles de Gaulle, provides the same disdain of the foreigner but also a superiority based on his belief in his own destiny."
Sep 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "The burden of loneliness for older people is intimately connected to what they are alone with. As we reach the end of our lives, we frequently carry heavy burdens that have accumulated along the way, such as feelings of regret, betrayal and rejection. And the wounds from past relationships can haunt people all their lives."
Sep 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Gardens help restore the ability to concentrate on demanding tasks, providing the perfect space for a break when working from home in a pandemic. Natural things – such as trees, plants and water – are particularly easy on the eye and demand little mental effort to look at. Simply sitting in a garden is therefore relaxing and beneficial to mental wellbeing."
Aug 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "Whether or not a person achieves remission, reducing blood sugar levels is important in managing the negative effects of type 2 diabetes and reducing risk of complications. But when it comes to choosing a diet, the most important thing is to pick one that suits you – one that you’re likely to stick to long term."
Aug 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "In our latest study, we show that by taking the microbiome from young mice and transplanting them into old mice, many of the effects of ageing on learning and memory and immune impairments can be reversed. Using a maze, we showed that this faecal microbiota transplant from young to old mice led to the old mice finding a hidden platform faster."
Aug 3rd 2021
EXTRACT: "Fukuyama argued that political struggle causes history. This struggle tries to solve the problem of thymos – an ancient Greek term referring to our desire to have our worth recognised. This desire can involve wanting to be recognised as equal to others. But it can also involve wanting to be recognised as superior to others. A stable political system needs to accommodate both desires." .... "Counter-dominant spite can weaken liberal democracies. During the 2016 Brexit referendum, some people in the UK voted Leave to spite elites, knowing this could damage the country’s economy. Similarly, during the 2016 US presidential election some voters supported Donald Trump to spite Hillary Clinton, knowing his election could harm the US. "
Jul 31st 2021
EXTRACT: "If we want to live in a world that is good for pollinators, as well as the rest of us, big changes are needed in our environment, and our food system. This is why many beekeepers change their diet and their shopping, eating more locally grown vegetables that aren’t treated with pesticides. ...... Being willing to buy fruit and vegetables that may have the occasional insect living in it is better for us and for nature. To live more harmoniously with the natural world, we need to relax about larvae in the lettuce and slugs in the spinach."
Jul 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "You’d think our brush with mortality through the pandemic would have brought some of this home to us. You’d think it would give us pause for thought about what really matters to us: the kind of world we want for our children; the kind of society we want to live in. And for many people it has. In a survey carried out during lockdown in the UK, 85% of respondents found something in their changed conditions they felt worth keeping and fewer than 10% wanted a complete return to normal."
Jul 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "English artist Damien Hirst’s latest project, “The Currency”, is an artwork in two forms. Its physical form is 10,000 unique hand-painted A4 sheets covered in colourful dots. In the same way as paper money, each sheet includes a holographic image of Hirst, a signature, a microdot and – in place of a serial number – a small individual message. The second part of the artwork is that each of these hand-painted sheets has a corresponding NFT (non-fungible token). NFTs are digital certificates of ownership which exist on the secure online ledgers that are known as blockchains. ---- The way that “The Currency” works is that collectors will not be buying the physical artwork immediately. Instead, they will pay US$2,000 (£1,458) for the NFT and then have a year to decide whether they want the digital or the physical version. Once the collector selects one, the other will be destroyed. ---- So what is going on here, and what does it tell us about art and money?"
Jul 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Ellison was an abstract expressionist painter, who, having come to New York City from West Texas in 1962, was as he said “unable to find traction” as a painter. At the same time, he began collecting ceramic objects and educating himself about this field of art as he went along. In 2009 he bestowed on the Metropolitan Museum of Art over 300 extraordinary examples of American ceramics, spanning the years 1876 through 1956. Since then, Ellison has gifted to the Museum over 600 works – including a significant collection of European art pottery in 2013, and most recently over 125 modern and contemporary clay vessels and objects – making the Museum one of the most significant repositories of Art Pottery in the world. ---- The current exhibition presents nearly 80 pieces drawn from Ellison’s latest donation, and it is a thoroughly captivating show; even where (or perhaps especially where) the works are outlandish, bizarre, sometimes almost monstrous, but nonetheless enthralling."
Jul 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the course of England’s journey to the Euro 2020 final, one of the most fascinating plays has been happening just off the pitch. Whenever the TV camera cuts to the team’s manager Gareth Southgate, he is occasionally seen standing alone on the edge of the field, urging his team on. ---- But most of the time he is deep in conversation with his assistant Steve Holland. ---- A recent study of English football culture points to a shift away from what the authors term “Beckhamisation”, after the former England captain and Manchester United star player David Beckham – a popular and instantly recognisable symbol of that period of football history (though, it is not suggested the culture was his creation). ---- During the 1990s, the study claims, this “Beckhamisation” saw high octane management practices imported from the corporate world into football. ---- In recent years, this has been replaced by “Southgatism”, a leadership style which that study describes as “modest, self-deprecating, down to earth, diverse and progressive”. "
Jun 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "New York’s Museum of Modern Art is currently presenting an exhibition devoted to an in-depth review of Paul Cézanne’s drawings. If there is any criticism to be made of this extraordinary show, it is that it is frankly overwhelming: with roughly 280 pencil, ink and gouache drawings and watercolors (and even a handful of oil paintings), there is so much to take in that two or three visits to the exhibition may be required to do it justice."
Jun 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "Cognitive flexibility provides us with the ability to see that what we are doing is not leading to success and to make the appropriate changes to achieve it." .... "Flexible thinking is key to creativity – in other words, the ability to think of new ideas, make novel connections between ideas, and make new inventions." .... "The good news is that it seems you can train cognitive flexibility."
Jun 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "Confronting our complex history and ultimately embracing a more equitable, balanced, and humble culture may be a tall order in these fractious times. But that makes it even more imperative that we fully reckon with who we are and who we are capable of becoming."
Jun 11th 2021
EXTARCT: "A further health benefit of hiking is that it’s classed as “green exercise”. This refers to the added health benefit that doing physical activity in nature has on us. Research shows that not only can green exercise decrease blood pressure, it also benefits mental wellbeing by improving mood and reducing depression to a greater extent than exercising indoors can."
Jun 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress,” Mahatma Gandhi said, “can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” If we apply that test to the world as a whole, how much moral progress have we made over the past two millennia? ...... That question is suggested by The Golden Ass, arguably the world’s earliest surviving novel, written around 170 CE, when Emperor Marcus Aurelius ruled the Roman Empire. Apuleius, the author, was an African philosopher and writer, born in what is now the Algerian city of M’Daourouch."
Jun 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "Research we’ve done, which looked at 37 adults with type 2 diabetes, found that over two weeks, prolonged sitting was associated with high blood sugar levels. But we also found that when people stood up or walked around between periods of sitting, they had lower blood sugar levels. Other studies have also had similar results."
May 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Paul Van Doren's legacy lies in a famous company, and in his advice to young entrepreneurs to get their hands dirty, and to know what goes into making what they are selling."
May 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "May 7th marked three hundred and ten years since the philosopher David Hume was born. He is chiefly remembered as the most original and destructive of the early modern empiricists, following John Locke and George Berkeley." .... " Shocking as it may (and should) sound, Hume is implying nothing less than that the next time you turn the key in your car ignition, you are as justified to expect the engine will start as you are in believing it will turn into a pumpkin. For there is a radical contingency that pervades all our experience. We could wake up tomorrow to a world that looks and behaves very differently to the one we are in now. Matters of fact are dependent on experience and can never be known a priori — they are purely contingent, and could always turn out different than what we expect."