New Conceptions of the Brain and of Creativity in the Latter Part of Life

"Becoming very old is good - as long as I don't have to take the consequences!" Whether this is a real quote from Woody Allen or not, many of us probably agree with the sentiment. People seek longevity but want to keep their vital functions intact. For example: After a certain age, in the late summers you start to listen eagerly for crickets and you get very relieved when you hear one. Let us then hope that you have not mistaken your tinnitus for the crickets!

Indeed we cannot escape the fact that physical functions and vital organs in the body get worn and lose the capacity of the young. For instance our pulse maximum decreases when we get older and it cannot be improved by training. Another example is that older adults have more difficulty focusing their attention and ignoring distracting stimuli. Much decline in mental ability is however often not caused by aging per se but by specific diseases, such as dementia or depression.

A notable contribution in support of old age creativity was recently made by psychiatrist Gene Cohen. Acknowledging the great contribution regarding the general life span development made by Erik Homburger Erikson, Cohen stated that Erikson himself thought his work on aging was incomplete. Cohen therefore delineated a new model of psychological development in the latter part of life, to be described below in certain detail.

Building on new research findings about the brain, Cohen made some important statements about it: First that the brain continues to develop into old age due to new experiences and learning, and that actually new brain cells form in the adult brain. Next, that the brain's biological basis for our emotional life also develops and gets more balanced with age; and finally that the brains' two hemispheres are more equally used by older adults.

It is of interest that older people in certain tasks use the two brain hemispheres more equally, which according to Cohen could contribute to make old people more creative. This has however in other research also been interpreted as a sign of compensation for loss of resources which leads to the activation of larger brain areas.

Empirical support for the importance of using both hemispheres for creativity has earlier been given in research showing that highly creative young adults used both their frontal lobes approximately equally during a creativity task, in contrast to low creative persons who mainly activated areas in their left frontal lobe. However, since we know of no study that has actually looked at the hemispheric activity when old people perform a creative task, Cohen's point needs more evidence. Recent brain research clearly speaks in favor of the preservation of old people's cognitive and relational competences, but it is uncertain if this fact implies creativity, or if it rather leads to better and wiser decisions in older persons.

It is an indisputable fact that it takes many years of hard work and experience to achieve excellence in a field, and the reported difficulties with distracting stimuli might actually simultaneously be an indication of creativity, since research has shown that creative persons are often typified by slight disinhibition in the brain. It seems likely that disinhibition in the brain is one of the ingredients in human curiosity. Being less inhibited and controlled sets loose our inquisitive and curious minds, and the urge to seek out new problems and unanswered questions is an obvious starting point and motivating force for creativity. A curious mind is an important ingredient in what Cohen calls the Inner Push - the fundamental need to grow and develop.

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