Creativity and the Aging Brain

“Don’t imagine you’ll have it forever. Use it while you’ve got it because it’ll go; it’s sliding away like water down a plug hole.”

So said Nobel Prize-winning novelist Doris Lessing of creativity. The author of The Golden Notebook, who passed away recently at the age of 94, said this five years ago when describing a creative slump. But as Tara Bahrampour notes in The Washington Post, in many ways creative thinking can stay with you well into your final years, and perhaps even be stronger and more dynamic.

I put forward as Exhibit One the estimable Dr. Francine Toder, author of The Vintage Years: Finding Your Inner Artist (Writer, Musician, Visual Artist) after Sixty. In her guest post for The Artist’s Road in May, she profiles creatives who started a new creative passion later in life. Francine herself took up the cello at age 70.

Our brains are capable of out-of-the-box thinking throughout our lives; exploring it can be like taking in the public art on a Berlin street.

Our brains are capable of out-of-the-box thinking throughout our lives; exploring our own brain can be like taking in the public art on a Berlin street.

I am ill-inclined to push back against a Nobel Prize winner such as Lessing. And readers of my most recent post must know the empathy I felt for Lessing when I read of her stalled creativity. But Bahrampour highlights some key points as to why we mustn’t extrapolate Lessing’s late-life struggle with writing across all older creatives.

  1. The human brain is hard-wired for creative thinking. Absent other changes to the brain, we’re creative from birth to our final breath. Damage to the brain changes that calculus, obviously, and Lessing did suffer from a stroke late in life.
  2. Creative thinking requires adventurous living. You don’t have to take up skydiving when you turn 65, but you should shake up your routine at times throughout your creative life to force your brain to think differently, like Toder did by starting the cello.
  3. Naturally occurring biological changes can facilitate creative thinking. As we enter our 40′s, a sheath that protects our brain’s axons begins to break down. The protection that sheath brings can help lead one to that “Eureka” moment, but a decrease can facilitate the kind of free thinking that leads to unique creative output.

There is one other point Bahrampour makes in her article that I’d like to highlight. She says “[o]lder artists can also be galvanized by their own sense of mortality.” In other words, the ticking clock serves as a powerful motivator.

I hear that clock. No, at the age of 46 I do not feel that death is knocking at my door. I don’t particularly think about my mortality much, to be quite frank. But I do constantly take stock of where I am in my life and what I have accomplished to date.

When I chose to return to the path of an art-committed life at the age of 43, I told myself that I was two decades behind. I felt behind at times in my recent MFA program, where more than half of the students were younger than me. I was inspired, however, by several other students who were similar in age to Francine Toder when she took up the cello. So I now am less inclined to mourn those lost years, but I remain hungry to “catch up.”

The bottom line is that if you are inclined to be creative, be creative. If what you’ve always done isn’t working, try something different, and know that creative possibility is awaiting you somewhere in your brain.

ADDENDUM: I’d like to welcome visitors who have found this post via Freshly Pressed. This is the second time I’ve been Pressed this year, and I love how this service brings in thoughtful and insightful new readers!

About Patrick Ross

I'm a writer chronicling his commitment to living an art-committed life, which included a cross-country road trip meeting with creatives of all stripes.

199 Responses to “Creativity and the Aging Brain”

  1. Scary post, Patrick! As an “older” grad student myself, approaching 40 is scary enough, but when I think about stuff like this the clock ticks louder. Though I have to remind myself it’s not the end of all things and like you say, many ways to encourage creativity no matter what age we are. My grandfather, 86, can’t walk on his own accord, but he still writes poetry. Here’s to healthy brains!

    • And here’s to your grandfather! :)

    • I don’t think that creativity is linked to age at all. In fact, wisdom which is the domain of older people (55 or 60 and beyond), enhances all art forms—creating depth, richness, and complexity. I always go back to my mantra: age is not pathology and cognitive loss is not inevitable. I love that your grandfather still writes poetry—keeping neuronal production high at any age!

  2. People can absolutely be creative at all ages. Being “blocked” can happen at all ages. For example, there are people painting with all kinds of degenerative diseases, mental disorders, etc. Age is only a block if we let it be! Just like anything, we can make excuses to avoid more creative endeavor, or not. I WILL beg to differ with Lessing!

    • Thanks, Carrie! All, Carrie is an artist, an arts instructor, and an arts advocate.

    • I agree with Carrie! My mom always told me that life gets better with each decade. She is living proof. At 77 she is still going strong. I have a neighbor who is in his older years who is a famous painter- still going strong. I think it is important that people remember that life doesn’t have to end just because you get older. As Johann Christoph Arnold points out in his latest book, “Rich in Years,” http://www.richinyears.com life can be just as meaningful in your later years as they were in your younger years…

  3. I totally agree. Sometimes life itself holds a finger on the stall button for us. I finally got my children out on their own, my husband retired and we lived out of the country for 8 mos, forcing me to turn inward once more. I have always been artist but used it in more practical ways over the years-cake decorating, baking for side money. I have completed a novel in the last year, am working on my own illustrations for it, and recently discovered that what I thought was a love for photography has turned into a passion I only wish I had realized sooner. Thanks for a wonderful post. I am 54 but my mind feels like it is 16 again.

    • Your cake-baking, Cheryl, is a great example of someone living an art-filled life, which is where they bring creativity to life tasks. You’re now living an art-committed life–novel writing, illustrations, photography–and can do so because you have the ability to in terms of your schedule. Of course many wouldn’t take that next step–to fill that time with creative pursuits–so kudos for doing so. And how great that you feel your mind is 16! Creative thinking activates more of the brain, and can produce that feeling of younger thinking (or, perhaps, the absence of cobwebs over your thinking).

      • Perhaps we as humans try too hard to put definitive meaning to events and messages which are meant to hold value in whatever way they are perceived by the individual recipients. I think that is what each of us is doing here now, accepting and adjusting the message to excite our individual intellectual receptors. I think Lessing spoke to the creative process at any point in time, for when it seems to be slipping, it can seem final, no matter the age when we experience such a phase.

        • Reality is perception, and our perceptions vary. One of the things I like about the conversations here at The Artist’s Road is exactly what you just articulated, how each reader brings his or her own internalization to the conversation. Very enlightening.

    • You are welcome!

  4. Our creativity is fueled by our diverse experiences and with age we have more experiences to draw from.

    Lessing’s quote may certainly be how she felt: “Don’t imagine you’ll have it forever…Use it while you’ve got it,” but excluding end-of-life health issues, it shouldn’t be universally applied to normal aging.

    I share Patrick’s awareness of what has been accomplished to date and remind myself that creative output isn’t always consistent and linear. For our own uses, I would suggest restating Lessing’s phrase to make it our own: “Don’t imagine you’ll be here forever…use your creativity now.”

  5. Great article, Patrick! I’m 41 and am aware that in order to stay creative and inspired, one has to be active. So as an illustrator myself, I fence like I have mentioned in our interview a few years ago. But it can be challenging to stay inspired especially living in Vermont concerning the slow paced lifestyle. I do what I can to read and play video games, or forms of gaming, to engage my mind so as to be able to think outside the box.

    • Hi Adam,

      Oh, I remember your fencing. You had a great line, where you said you wield a pen in the same way you wield an epee. I loved that.

      It’s good to stay stimulated. You do have what Thoreau valued, the inspiration of nature. But yes, it’s slow there. After I graduated this summer I bought a print by Vermont artist Dug Nap. It’s an “action map” of Vermont. The key shows a symbol that stands for “cities in Vermont where you’re most likely to find a helluva lot of excitement.” There is no such symbol on the Vermont map. :)

  6. I also beg to differ with Lessing; it sounds to me that her quote came from some possible depressive thoughts due to hearing that clock ticking very loudly.
    I’ve got 20 years on you, Patrick, (does this sound like an AA meeting: Hi, my name is Angeline, and I’m 66 :) My passion for photography just began a couple of years ago, and I am consumed by it, and also wishing that I had found this earlier in my life. I’m not the world’s greatest photographer, but I can see progress in my work as I look back to when I began, and I see beauty in things I never would have before. Creativity is a wonderful thing…and to think I had it all along!
    This is a great post, and I’ve enjoyed the other’s comments.

  7. Great post Patrick – even if parts of it DID get me thinking “Ohhh-kaaay. little bit scared now..!”

    But no, creativity absolutely doesn’t have to fade and die the older you get. I’m a little younger than you (but not much) and I’m in a much better place creatively now than I was twenty years ago. The reason? Letting go of The Fear. In my late teens and early twenties I was crippled with insecurities and inhibitions – as many people are at that age. It was only once I got into my mid-thirties that I was finally able to do that thing of closing my eyes and walking head-on into the storm anyway. At thirty-four I begun a two-year Performing Arts Diploma at my local college… in a class full of seventeen-year-olds. (Yeah, that’s how to learn dignity is REALLY over-rated! ;) ) I learned so much about the Performing Arts world – but it also had a major effect on my writing too. Graduating with a triple distinction improved my confidence enough to make me think “Hmm, maybe I could really DO something with my writing after all then…” I’m now well into Draft Two of my first completed novel EVER. It CAN be done – and age is certainly NOT a barrier to creativity.

    I’m sorry Doris Lessing felt the way she did in her later years – I personally wonder if it was more down to depression than ‘losing’ her creativity. No less cruel a demon of course.

    • Thank you, Wendy, for sharing your own story. It is a valued contribution here.

      Given Lessing’s age, there are lots of reasons why she might have felt the way she did, but depression is a possibility. It’s a common occurrence among creative types, although I couldn’t speak to Lessing’s experience with it or not.

  8. Really interesting post, Patrick. I can for sure see how the ticking clock works to push things along. Certainly works for me with a deadline, so I can only imagine how the ULTIMATE deadline would work even better.

  9. Am I reading “fear” into some of these reactions to Lessing? Lessing may indeed be advocating fear — ie, being fearful of losing it. Fear is a good motivator. I find it disrespectful and even distasteful to question someone of Lessing’s accomplishments. Here she is offering us gold, and the general reaction seems to be to marginalize her as being not of sound mine. This reminds me of those ads promoting longevity, some sketchy regime devised by someone in their twenties. Hello? I think the appropriate response to advice from a super-elder like Lessing is reverence, silence, and of course ultimately take from it what feels right. But to gang up on her — however politely — is entirely inappropriate. Some of these comments suggest that the authors believe “creativity” to be life’s highest experience. It’s possible that by the time we’re as old as Lessing, that creativity gives way to some higher experience. Perhaps creativity is eventually seen as just so much ego-bolstering. I don’t know. But we do know of contemplatives surrendering their creative aspirations because, like all other belief systems, they stand in the way of real “seeing.” So, there.

    • PJ, we can always count on you to stir things up!

      I’m not sure people are meaning to be disrespectful of Lessing. I think they’re reacting to the universality that appears to be in her statement. If you read the WaPo piece, you’ll see there’s a similar reaction to her statement by someone quoted in the piece, one more of dismay that it will cause people not to pursue creativity later in life than one that she was somehow unfamiliar with the creative process.

      I am intrigued by your suggestion of the possibility of creativity giving way to a higher experience. I’m not sure I know what you mean by that, however. I’m also not sure what to make of the final sentence about contemplatives and belief systems, my apologies.

      • Patrick, you’re such a gracious blog-host. By those last thoughts, I’m thinking of the elder who, after a long life, retreats to the monastery in order to cultivate “emptiness.” Very Zen. But also Christian, as it turns out. Ultimately, one wants to be emptied of busyness, of all striving, even of God. Then, one discovers the hidden self. I think we find this at the root of all religion. I’ll go out on a limb and propose that this “emptying” is the most creative act of all. But to get there, we have to forsake everything, even creativity. Bit of a conundrum, for sure. I’m not saying that Doris Lessing became such a Zen nun, but on a clear day I see such a fate waiting in store for me.

        • Wow, PJ, I get what you’re saying now and I like it. You could almost use the word “enlightenment,” since you speak of Zen. A branch of Christianity called Unity believes both Jesus Christ and Buddha achieved an “enlightenment” on Earth. But I digress! I see what you’re saying. If Lessing was experiencing that “emptying,” I hope she was able to see its positive aspects.

  10. I actually think about this all the time… and often feel in catch up mode, having (more than happily) dedicated my life to raising two children while writing on the side, always writing. Now, as I am writing fiction full time, I find myself unable to turn off the desire to write. Even when I’m not actively hands on keyboard, I’m writing in my mind, my brain full of the current story. And I’m glad because I do have the fear of “losing it” — time, ability, creativity, and life (I suppose if I’m going to go there, I better go there). I love Doris Lessing’s writing and she’s a wonderful role model for the creative process, too. Thank you.

    • How fantastic that you are in full-time writer mode. I was there at times during the MFA. It can be a bit exhausting being in that when you have other life responsibilities, of course, as you know well. And yes, I think we’re seeing here that for many, fear is a great motivator. (It can’t be the only one for sustained creativity, of course.)

  11. Hi Patrick,

    Thanks for acknowledging The Vintage Years again, and my journey with the cello. Since the time that I wrote that guest blog for your site I’ve ventured into creative aging through dance and theater, both of which are composite arts, and extensions of the fine arts. Here are the links to the articles at HuffPost50: (tap dancing) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/francine-toder-phd/tap-dancing_b_3749600.html; (improv theater) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/francine-toder-phd/senior-improv-a-burgeonin_b_4047493.html.

    By the way, to support your blog, I recently heard highly respected neurologist Oliver Sacks say that as he reached 80 he thought that the decade of the 80s might be the most creative yet, for many of the same reasons that I site in my book, The Vintage Years: Finding Your Inner Artist (Writer, Musician, Visual Artist) After Sixty.

  12. First of all, our creativity changes over time. It doesn’t “get” worse. What might be difficult when we get very old maybe severe arthritis that makes painting, musical instrument playing….

    Perhaps Lessing was simply referring the speed in which the creative brain wants very much to translates on paper, in music, in colour or in words at a speed that other aging body parts can’t keep up.

    I consider a naturally creative brain an enormous blessing and mental health insurance..if you channel your Muse and thoughts productively and positively not just for yourself, but for others to help the younger generation to think out of the (paint) box.

    But what is very important that person considers in their mid-30′s if they are unfamiliar with creative broad thinking or haven’t explored natural creative skills, to start NOW…it’s a long, fun journey for life to keep the brain more elastic. And ultimately a person’s mental health more stabilized.

    Imagine sitting on top of your own creativity and know dimly it’s shut down. Surely a person will burst out in negative ways if not channelled right.

    I will be 55 next year….

    • Thanks for this comment, Jean (and for sharing your age). I think your NOW message applies to every age, but you’re probably right that it’s in one’s mid-30′s where the focus will have the most payout over the rest of the person’s life.

  13. There’s a very important parenthetical phase in that Washington Post article: “Lessing had a stroke in the 1990s, which may have contributed to her outlook.” There are so many complex issues related to health that affect one’s creativity, especially as we age. And what are we talking about when we say creative anyway? If we are just talking about the ability to produce finished products that we can point to and say – there it is, my creativity – that’s one thing. But creativity is as more about flexibility and resilience and adaptation than it is discrete, finished products that live on (we hope) as evidence of our creative worth. I am sure Lessing was creative to the last breath – even if she was not satisfied with the quality or quantity of her output. Which are very different things, however we confound them. My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in February. Memory loss is increasingly frustrating to her, but as she moves from word to word like a child hopping from stone to stone in a stream, trying to communicate a thought, is that not creativity? We get to be creative as long as we have the urge to be – though not necessarily the way we want to be.

    • Thank you for this comment, Paula. First of all, I’m sorry to hear of your mother’s diagnosis, but I’m glad for her that you are in her life to be there with her as she experiences what you describe as creative ways to manage the condition. And yes, the stroke is likely a key point; that’s why I mentioned it in the first bullet above, but that likely wasn’t sufficiently clear.

      I am glad you made the distinction between creative thinking and creative output. Often on this blog my focus is on the output; the art-committed life is about producing output, going further than an art-filled life. But creativity is indeed more than producing discrete, finished products. I fear, based on Lessing’s quote, that she didn’t fully appreciate that perspective when she said that quote, which is a shame.

      • Ah yes, you did mention it, and it was clear; I just forgot you had done so in reading through all the comments, which only mentioned depression. (Bad reading – not bad writing!) In fact I am not with my mother physically, as she lives in New York and I live in Minneapolis. But even at a distance, watching her deterioriate in the same way her own mother deteriorated puts me with her on an existential level, and I have to wonder if, as many of us do in watching our parents decline, if I am watching my own future pass before me. And if I am, perhaps I need to redefine what creativity means now, while I have the chance to align myself more with how the universe seems to define it, and less with my own idea of what proves my own self worth.

  14. Thanks Patrick!!Long have I wallowed in this mystery,whether age is a factor of creativity or not.Now I have to look at it at a different perspective.Unless I allow it to be,my creativity will not deteriorate as age wears out.

    • Hi Ronnie,

      I am a firm believer that you can always return to your muse. Like exercise, it’s always a bit of a challenge if you’ve been away from it for awhile. But like Paula mentions above, there are ways to keep your brain creatively engaged without producing creative works, so that is of help as well. Glad you found the post of benefit!

  15. This is a great post! I’m currently in graduate school focusing on multimedia journalism. I love the point you made about experience! Even as a young journalist I’ve found the benefits experiences can have on my work. I’ve added a story wrote about experience and one writer’s journey as he acknowledged that writing was hard but not painful. http://www.themayborn.com/article/tricky-business

  16. Reblogged this on MikeSight and commented:
    Wish I could do that!

  17. Reblogged this on woman problems, guy problems and any questions or advice needed and commented:
    Let’s blog on my blog info101cassie … It’s just getting started and it will be a heavily fulfilled girl talk room. Follow me ladies the rides are beginning and it’s a roller coaster of emotions !!! Hehe! Xoxo info101cassie

  18. Gerontologists say that as we age, our brain pathways become more entrenched. We increasingly do what we’ve done before to the exclusion of that which is new. Creative output is a major way for people to cause the brain to form new pathways and break out of the old channels. It doesn’t have to be original output (in the sense never done before by anyone); it just needs to be new to the one particular brain producing it. Even “bad” creative output is useful, and not to be scoffed at. So we should celebrate all those who are trying to stay mentally tuned via exercising their creativity. It is just as important as exercising the body.

  19. I will be 68 in two weeks. To keep my brain working I started to blog. I think it is a great way to keep the juices flowing.

  20. Reblogged this on The Fenn Diagrams and commented:
    See Point # 2 for justification for “adventurous living”!

    Go for it.

    Go Forrest.

    I indulged a whim in mid-life to take up the cello. Long story. My practice has suffered since April/May when I took up treasure hunting.

  21. I do not see creativity ever leaving, because it always grows.

    It may have unusual stages, where it just does not show itself, but for certain when it resurfaces it always feels a grade better.

  22. I think maturity in age can bring good things to the artistic table. For one, I have more focus now that I realize I can’t “do everything”; I have found some freedom in realizing the need to focus on one, or a few things, and be good at them. As well, age brought with it the acknowledgement that I want to learn, more than I want affirmation or approval. I now accept correction and criticism better than when I was younger. Both those things, and others, can make the creative process better in the later years, and perhaps even more productive. Great post; I really enjoyed reading it.

    • This is a very welcome comment. You made me think with your observation about wanting to learn more than needing affirmation. I realized in my MFA program that I was almost begging instructors and workshop participants to be more direct and honest with all feedback, including negative. I was desperate to learn (and get my money’s worth on the tuition). I would likely have been more in the camp of wanting the pat on the head twenty years ago, and potentially shutting down if there was too much I interpreted as “negative.”

  23. Could be angst returning at the other end of life. Stress and the creative quotient ….

  24. I love to paint. It makes me relax and hopefully keep my brain going. Do you have an activity you like to do that keeps your aging brain engaged?

    • Good for you! Well, certainly creative writing does that. But this blog also helps with that. I have to come up with at least one topic each week that I find intriguing yet don’t completely understand (much of this blog is built on conversation and input from readers). This post kicked around in my head for a couple of days before I wrote it, and that was useful mental activity.

  25. Very nice post. As a fairly young man this makes me think. A lot. Especially about the recreational things that I like to do that might be killing off brain capacity in the later years.

  26. You wrote
    “The bottom line is that if you are inclined to be creative, be creative. ” Tapping into your creativeness is never too late and it may even make you feel more energetic and younger. Great Post!
    Melba Christie @Poemattic.com

  27. Thanks! This gives me a hopeful feeling for the future.

  28. The best and timeless ability is the power to create.

  29. As an artist who is over 60 I just had to read this. Great post! I have a slight issue with point 2, however. Some of my greatest aha moments have been in the shower or while doing housework! Also, as you grow older, you care less and less what other people think and that is great for your creative output!

    • I love what you say about caring less about others’ opinions; how liberating that is!

      You know, scientists have isolated the reason why we have shower eurekas (or while doing housework or driving a familiar route). Our subconscious is constantly coming up with solutions to our problems, etc., but we don’t hear it because we’re distracted by our jobs or the TV or the book we’re reading or–far too often–checking our Twitter or Facebook feed. You can’t do any of those things while showering, so your subconscious says “Oh, I can get your attention now! What do you think of this!” The lesson is that we need to have more time free from distraction, something Thoreau figured out.

      Let me take a moment to point out a post that has been pretty popular, in which I describe how I make use of my subconscious mind while I sleep to problem-solve: http://artistsroad.wordpress.com/2011/05/25/5-steps-to-subconscious-driven-creativity/

      • I find when I go on my morning walks, I start thinking about what I want to do. I tell myself, it is not too late in life to try something new. I get very excited thinking of all the the possibility. I want to become a birder, or a photographer, or write a cook book. I find myself going in many different directions and I don’t know which is the best direction to go in.

        • Ah, so you do have some thoughts! The first two seem related (photographing birds) and the third seems within reach. I don’t see why you wouldn’t want to start working on all three. Einstein still found time to play the violin every day!

        • Shannon, morning walks are perfect for thinking and daydreaming, which in fact enhances creativity. I don’t think you need to pick a direction at this point, only a starting point. One book I highly recommend is “The Artist’s Way” bu Julia Cameron. It’s been out for many years but the best at what it does – a 3 month program to stimulate creativity. Another book is my own, “The Vintage Years: Finding Your Inner Artist (Writer, Musician, Visual Artist) After Sixty.” Here’s also my new article on music and the brain: https://lifereimagined.aarp.org/stories/4601-Go-Ahead-Make-Music-It-ll-Boost-Your-Brain at AARP’s new interactive site: http://lifereimagined.aarp.org/, which offers guidance to 50+ folks taking the next step. Good luck.

  30. well my opinion is in today’s society we have individuals that ofrely upon emerging technology way to much, in which it distorts the functionality of being creative out of the the brain….grey is for wisdom the older we become the more we analyse things.

    • Thanks for this comment. There’s a lot to be said for understanding the fundamentals before exploring new technologies. That said, I’ve seen cases where an older artist will embrace a new artistic technology and do things that his or her younger peers hadn’t imagined doing with it, because of the wiser perspective they bring to the new tool.

  31. Thank you. I needed this (:

  32. beautifully written… and without mortality in mind I’ll be taking this to heart and grave!

  33. I’m glad creativity is one of the things that stays. It means I’ll still be capable of writing creative and wondrous stories in my retirement. After all, Ray Bradbury was one of the most creative writers that ever lived and he wrote and published stories well into his 80s.

    • Have you noticed how rarely you hear of a writer “retiring,” and when you do how they are often well past “retirement” age? I think more often an artist “retires” in the sense that they have been doing that “work” for so long they no longer wish to push themselves to produce works for others’ consumption, but that is different from having the creative juices drained.

      • Yes, I don’t hear much about writers retiring at all. Maybe writing is one of those things that people fall in love with so much that it becomes more than a job and instead a way of life. People, after all, go into the craft for the sheer love of it, not for the money (starving artist anyone)?

  34. Very Interesting and thought provoking post Patrick. I too am a late life graduate and the compulsion to write becomes evermore stronger even though my brain may have shed its sheath years ago. somehow I also think Carrie Brummer has a point, some of the most creative people I have encountered underlying disorders. I also recall that when Lessing was first awarded the Nobel, she seemed at odds as to what the fuss was about. Seems to me Lessing was a tad indifferent about her craft.

    • Thank you for your comment. I’m loathe to speculate about Lessing directly, but perhaps one lesson we can learn is not to extrapolate one person’s experience across all of us. Kudos to embracing your compulsion to write and to let loose your creative impulses.

  35. Perhaps she had a level perspective but not indifferent to her art.
    “If”, Rudyard Kipling
    “if you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two imposters the same”

  36. Thanks for a great post. I think it should be noted, too, that we can face and embrace dying with great creativity. I think here of people I have known who have written wonderful and imaginative letters to their loved ones (after they had been diagnosed with terminal illnesses) and left them as seeds for further creativity after their deaths.

  37. I fully support the idea that out creativity “enhances” as we grow older. I see it both in my dance career and my fiances art career. Granted, we’re still in our 20s, but the transformation from age 18 to now is remarkable. I can only imagine what my body will create in the next 30 years. Through life experience and new understanding of our body and the world, what our brains will be able to come up with will be astounding.

    Great post, thank you for sharing!

  38. It’s nice to know that once I get through the brain fog of menopause, I might be creatively pausing! I am an artist too!

  39. Life Along The River Reply December 6, 2013 at 11:52 am

    thank you – well said and inspiring!

  40. Glad to find this blog which addresses my primary concern. Perhaps i will return to school to get an MFA. (I am 68 years; painting for 50; no art school; an MA in history; good credentials i think.) thanks.

    • You’ve got fantastic credentials. It’s worth researching the average age of students in various programs; I was drawn to the Vermont College of Fine Arts low-residency program in part because they boasted of the many later-in-life students they had. VCFA recognized that not only could the students excel but that they would bring value to the program and the other students.

  41. The most pressing of our brain desires is to find ways to adapt to situations. Through this, we move through life and deal with all of the situations that confront us. You are so right to say that we need to challenge our brain, and give it a job.
    The brain,as we age, slows down because we are more inclined to have found our niche, a bit like being in over-drive on the highway – smooth and comfortable. Strange thing that, as chiefly, having the time – having the money- having the resources, are all jobs for the brain; and when we reach these goals we sit and twiddle our thumbs.
    Possibly everyone can draw. The problem here is not for the brain to work through the use of pencils, but help us to get over the feeling that our drawings need to be equal to some other persons standard. Throwing tasks at the brain reduces the need for it to tackle the simple things that we know already, such as breathing.
    Give a dog a good name and give the brain a good task. Great blog Patrick.

    • What a great comment. Thanks for the contribution. I’m particularly struck by what you say about the problem not being the brain working through the use of a pencil, but the pencil operator overcoming a self-imposed third-party standard of excellence. Let me also say that dog-naming can be a great creative exercise! :)

  42. so great to read this
    timely, too
    being 42
    thank you for your post

  43. You can be creative at any age. Although age can debilitate our senses and mind, there will always be that urge to create because thats what we are: creation. Reflections of what we are, we can create anything.

    • Yes, I believe that urge is always there; some are better at hearing it than others. I think the frustrating thing for Ms. Lessing was that she felt the urge but could not act upon it. There’s a lesson learned there, to find ways to make it easier on us as we age to continue to answer that urge.

  44. Patrick,
    Thank you so much for this post. I am 49 and have always loved to write but as of yet have just written here and there letting life get in the way of my beloved art. I see now that I need to weave it into my life to be happy. I just ended a career endeavor that I was miserable in. I was doing it for all the wrong reasons. I wasn’t being true to myself. Your post helped and encouraged me to see that I need (I must) to be creative and follow my passion for writing. I was touched by the ending that said if you are creative, be creative. If what you were doing isn’t working, change it. That spoke to my heart in my current situation. So, thank you so much! Here’s to a future of creativity .

    • Wow. Thank you for this comment, Eileen. Your story–a creative mind in midlife looking to find ways to pursue your passion in ways you haven’t allowed yourself before–is the motif of The Artist’s Road. It’s the journey I’ve been on for the past three years, since launching this blog with this post: http://artistsroad.wordpress.com/2010/10/23/hello-world/ I wish you all the encouragement I can, and welcome you to the path of an art-committed life.

  45. Ahhhh, I am at that moment of choosing a more artist life as well. I thought I had found it when I became a teacher later in life, but unfortunately, the creativity of teaching is being slowly suffocated and will soon die a horrible manner. I refuse to be the frog in the pot, so once again, I am moving onward.

    Sometimes I wonder if I am doing this too late in life; I turn 50 in three weeks. But, more frequently, I feel that if I don’t do this I will regret that more than shaking up my life and changing.

    Great post. Thank you.

    • You’re only turning fifty? You would have been one of the younguns in the pack I ran with in my MFA program! :) I know too well the urge you’re feeling, and I’m glad you recognize that urge and are looking at ways to honor it. For me this blog keeps me on the path of an art-committed life; having publicly vowed to follow it I can’t exactly hop off like I have too often in the past, at least not without a bit of embarrassment. :)

  46. Great post, and the thoughts you expressed match my own personal experience. I’m glad i found your blog.

  47. Reblogged this on slimflexy's Blog and commented:
    do u rili think that creativity works along with the brain

  48. I really appreciate this post and your approach to art. I had just completed a blog post of my own, in which I quoted the American Art Therapy Association re. the benefits of treating patients with art. It’s a fascinating subject!

  49. Reblogged this on maneframes and commented:
    Thank you.

  50. Reblogged this on My Infinite Balance and commented:
    Wow! What an awesome read. As an aged care nurse I found this very interesting to read and it sparked so many thoughts about creativity and ageing, and the importance of tapping into it.

    To my readers jump on over and have a read.

  51. I’m 70 and I do have cobwebs on my thoughts I have written about aging, not usually in a positive tone but using my creativity in my simple paintings has helped improve my attitude towards aging.

  52. I love point 2. Experiences in life make the juices flow.

  53. Reblogged this on professional blogs for all and commented:
    Nobel prize winner talks blog

  54. Reblogged this on dichthuatcfl and commented:
    Never be afraid of getting old. or maybe it’s just a lie

  55. I’m am retiring in January at the age of 57. I want to develop my creative side. My problem is I’m not certain in what direction. How can you help?

    • I found reading the following books to be helpful: The Third Chapter by Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot and Finding Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I hope they are helpful to you too.

    • Kudos on your upcoming retirement! I’m so happy you want to encourage your creative side, but I’m not sure how to provide you direction on that. One thing to consider is looking to see if there is a local arts or literary center that offers classes in anything from creative writing to ceramics. Maybe you’ll be exposed to a passion you didn’t know you have!

  56. I can share her sentiments. I feel I get better as I age and my thinking is just as sharp.

  57. Playing the cello doesn’t take creativity unless one is writing music with that cello. Reading notes and playing them is not creativity…the person who wrote the music being played is the one who exhibited creativity.

    • Hmm. I must respectfully disagree. As someone who has both played instruments and attempted writing music, I recognize that they are different creative pursuits. But if playing an instrument was not a creative pursuit, then why do we go to symphonies and rock concerts to hear musicians play live? Shouldn’t we just sit around a player piano? A musician expresses his or her creativity through the act of playing. I know a number of songwriters who have chosen to write songs for others rather than simultaneously be a performer because they realized they couldn’t compete in the latter sphere (I will admit, however, that they often feel their creative effort is more difficult, and in many respects I would agree with that).

      • We go to symphonies to hear musicians play the music that was creatively created by the creative ones – the composers. Basically, those who play instruments for other peoples music are mimics, which takes talent, but not creativity. But they are following a script, the script writing out of thin air by the creative ones. I am not saying musicians are not talented, I am saying that unless they create music, they are not creative.

  58. Loved your perspective. Thanks for sharing. I found this post via Freshly Pressed. Have just gotten back to my own blog http://lifesmissingpieces.wordpress.com/ after a lengthy time away. I hope there is still some creativity left… :)

    • I’m glad you found the post! Kudos for returning to your blog after a more than three year absence. That is so impressive; so many blogs are abandoned every day, but not many are then resumed after such an absence. If I could offer a word of advice (apologies, it’s hard to take my blog instructor hat off sometimes), I would suggest you write a brief post as to why you stopped blogging and, more importantly, why you resumed, and you include a line or two in your About page on that as well. Your readers, current and future, would appreciate that.

  59. Your post is very timely for me. Am going through a slump, but have not given up. Have learned one needs the hills and the valleys in life and creativity… to recharge one’s batteries, process life and to gather inspiration is what I believe is happening at the moment. Thank you!

    • I’m glad this post found you at the right time. Your comment found me at the right time. I blogged recently about how I’m in a creative slump, and I remain in one. I keep telling myself this valley is merely a place to recharge.

  60. I did get to your blog by clicking Freshly Pressed. Nice article! I wasn’t creative earlier in life (not that I am old now, 34). But I am happy that I have found creative passions in several different hobbies.

    • It’s never too late (or too early) to start! One thing I’d note is that it is also easy to drift away. You may hit a life patch where you go off the creative path; what I’ve learned is that it is always waiting there for you when you’re ready to return.

  61. This article is so good, I like this blog, Thank you very much for sharing

  62. I had missed Lessing’s comment; perhaps that’s what a friend was referring to when he worried about his own creative juices running dry. (I posted my impassioned response to his fears here: http://writersrumpus.com/2013/12/03/you-will-always-be-a-writer/) Intuitively, I agree with your assessment: That creativity is part & parcel of who we are, and endures as long as there is breath. I am delighted to learn that there is science behind creativity late in life, and will try your suggestions for nurturing my brain to maintain it as long as possible.

    • P.S. I experienced that early-40s creative spurt myself, and had no idea that it was “a thing”–though I suspected it at the time. And I also found my way here through Freshly Pressed.

    • Hi Marianne. I just read your post and liked it (and tweeted it). I see that down a ways you say you aren’t aware of examples and don’t want to hear them. :) I do believe Lessing was the exception rather than the rule in terms of a writer feeling they were “done,” but clearly we all hit rough patches, and they can last a while at times, which I think your friend likely is in. Thank you for visiting and reading!

  63. Awesome blog. Thanks for sharing!

  64. Really interesting post, Patrick. I can for sure see how the ticking clock works to push things along. Certainly works for me with a deadline, so I can only imagine how the ULTIMATE deadline would work even better.

  65. Found you via Freshly Pressed. Love the idea that creativity can surge as we grow older; I have so many short story and novel characters that call to me, but outdoor education and program cretion currently take priority.

    • I’m glad you found your way here. This blog is about my struggle to find that balance between creativity leading to artistic output and the other challenges of my life. You are of course applying your creativity to program design, and your blog name “happynaturalist” suggests you enjoy it, so celebrate that side of your creativity!

  66. Patrick, thank you for this message. I came across it through ‘Freshly Pressed’. While I do not work in the arts, I would agree with you about creativity and the fact that it does not necessarily leave one as one gets older. I am of a similar vintage to yourself and in the last few years I have returned to university, graduated and am now in the middle of a Masters. I have founf that, even in academia, it is possible to creative and it is, in fact, welcomed. My area of study was psychology, with a particular interest in social media and I found that creativity and novelty were highly regarded. On a personal note, in the last two years, I have taken up the ukulele and have become a keen amateur photographer; I am not very good at either….yet, but I agree that the possibility is there….somewhere. Thanks again.

    • So glad you found me and this post! Kudos on your return to higher education and your embrace of creative thinking in that realm. And more kudos for taking up the ukelele–I know a creative writer who recently took up that instrument as well–and photography, which happens to be my teenage daughter’s passion. Enjoy!

  67. Great post. I especially liked the part on how mortality can be a motivator. I’ve always found that the most healthy minds are the ones that are being put to use all the time.

    • I fully agree on keeping minds at work, and it can be pretty simple, really. A retiree who starts the day with a crossword or a jigsaw puzzle is already primed for some healthy thinking that day.

  68. I’ve always thought that creativity keeps you young. Artistic pursuits keep the neurones firing. Enjoyed your post . Regards Peet

  69. Reblogged this on this is it… and commented:
    This is an amazing piece on how creative our brains actually are, read it to find out more. :D

  70. Reblogged this on The Minute with Kirk Noland and commented:
    The human brain is hard-wired for creative thinking.

  71. Reblogged this on kwahtgrl and commented:
    Inspiration!

  72. We must follow our hearts in order to live a creative life. Explore. Take risks. Break the conventional believes. Move. Fail once in a while. Learn new skills. Start a small business. Have fun. The FEAR, not age, is the major obstacle for creative thinking.

  73. Thanks for a wonderful post!!

  74. Reblogged this on Apollo Fitness Barbados and commented:
    As many of you know, I’ve dabbled in every conduit for self-expression imaginable. I’ve always felt a great joy at the prospect of learning something new and, better yet, excelling at it. Hell, even the thought of failing gives me a mental erection… but that’s a post for another time.

    Research shows that diversifying interests, trying new things, challenging the brain… these behaviours forge new neurological pathways; thus keeping the brain ‘young’.

    The attached article demonstrates exactly this. I hope you find it as enjoyable as I did.

    Yours in fitness,
    -C. Springer
    http://www.getnarked.net
    http://www.facebook.com/NarkSide

  75. I started playing the guitar at 39. I’m 43 and still sticking with it. Occasionally it actually sounds like I can play :)
    I love learning and doing new things. The challenge is finding the time and focus to develop these new skills so you don’t just end up with a long list of ‘things I’ve tried and wasn’t good at’.
    It’s also good to identify the things that are wasting time and unproductive. Knocking those on the head really helps.
    http://rightlifer.wordpress.com

    • Kudos for staking with the guitar! I used to play and have drifted away from it. Not sure I ever sounded like I could play! And yes, you do need to stick with something to get good at it, but there’s still no harm in trying something new and not sticking with it. One weekend the wife and kids were away so I bought a harmonica and an instruction book. All I did all weekend was work on the harmonica. When they were back I performed a song for them. Then I decided I was done with it, but it was still a great weekend.

  76. I am coming to you via freshly pressed, and I do want to say, “Thank you, oh thank you for pressing this”. I loved your article . The idea that you are “hungry to catch up” with the years you haven’t been as creative, resonate with mine. Thank you, I needed this.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Creativity and the Aging Brain | the plastic br... - November 27, 2013

    […] "Don’t imagine you’ll have it forever. Use it while you’ve got it because it’ll go; it’s sliding away like water down a plug hole." So said Nobel Prize-winning novelist Doris Lessing of creativity….  […]

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  3. Creativity and the Aging Brain | Creativity | S... - November 27, 2013

    […] "Don’t imagine you’ll have it forever. Use it while you’ve got it because it’ll go; it’s sliding away like water down a plug hole." So said Nobel Prize-winning novelist Doris Lessing of creativity….  […]

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