The Neuroscience of Creativity and Aging

The Neuroscience of Creativity and Aging

“Creativity is the most fundamentally human characteristic. It is in fact the unique and defining trait of our species” writes the Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist Edward Wilson in his book “The Origin of Creativity”. Creativity is driven by the constant human desire for innovation, the discovery of new entities and processes, the solving of challenges and finding of new ones. Creativity in our society is often portrayed as the domain of artists, painters, musicians, poets or filmmakers, but some of the world’s great creators and/or inventors wore lab coats and never picked up a brush or played music: Einstein, Darwin, Newton, Bell, Edison, Tesla, Jobs and many more. Creativity is also present across a range of professions including medicine, engineering, marketing, law and research. It is misleading to presume that anyone who pursues the fine arts is by virtue of this fact guaranteed to be highly creative. It propagates a misrepresentation of creativity as well as art and inhibits many people from getting involved.

But is it easy to define “creativity”? The field of creativity has been examined, written about and researched since the ’40s. In fact, Bethune, in 1839, was already trying to define genius and that creativity played a huge role. It appears that we are born with more or less the same brain, and we, more or less use it the same way, but somehow creativity reaches a different level: imagination, originality, innovation, and seeing something that others cannot see or sense. Creativity implies curiosity, exploring knowledge, being engaged and yet observing, indulging in fantasy, being open to opportunities and exploring ideas.

With advances in the field of neuroscience and technology, we are now able to pinpoint the process of creativity. The key is understanding the neuroscience of anatomical structures where cognitive functions occur which are the basis of neural activations and deactivations at different stages of creativity. Using new tools and neuroimaging technology such as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), computerized Electroencephalogram, and PET Scans, scientists are learning how to trace the higher cognitive functions and consequently the source of creative thinking. It is hard to understand how neuroscientists can trace a thought process, a decision-making function, a mind-wandering action, an emotion, a creative thought as it is not something we can touch, and we see only the outcome. In some ways, it is like imaging a hard drive in your computer. At the touch of your keyboard, you can retrieve information, pictures, talk and music and much more. These gigabytes of memory can be stored forever. The brain is the same. These neuroimaging tools cannot measure a thought or an image in our memory but they can measure the use of energy, ie glucose and other enzymes of our brain cells and energy-glucose flowing through our neurons. In using the fMRI or PET Scan and other technologies during a task done by a patient, the neuroscientists can determine and visualize which areas of the pre-frontal cortex, the frontal, lateral, and posterior cortex the central part of our brain are using energy and lighting up on the computer screen.  David Dunson at Duke University and Rex Jung at the University of New Mexico have also been studying white matter tracks(neuro-fibers) using fMRI and diffusion tensor imaging, to understand the connections between the two hemispheres during creativity, specifically the speed of connections and the use of energy-glucose by our brain cells and neurons.

Empirical evidence suggests that the prefrontal cortex functions are among the first to deteriorate in older age. Studies suggest that the elderly are less able to inhibit well-learned rules and have less independence from memories stored in their brain. Aging was thought to be associated with functional and creative decline but until quite recently, researchers believe that the human brain follows a fairly predictable developmental process. It starts as a soft small matter with poor differentiation as a foetus, and evolves as it matures, gains shape and intellectual power until its peak performance believed to be at around 40 years old. After that, the brain begins a slow decline, getting slower and cloudier by the ’80s. But not all is lost, as it turns out, more and more psycho-neuroscientists are coming to the conclusion that the brain in the mid-life period described between 40 and 65 years old, is more elastic and flexible than we had thought. We may not pack so much raw data into our memory as we use to do in our early 40’s, but our ability to manage the information and knowledge is increased through our developing flexibility. How is that possible?

Anatomically, our brain is composed of white matter, the glia, (like glue keeping the nerve cells and connections together) and about half of gray matter which are the nerve cells. Much of the white matter is made of conductive nerve strands like invisible wires and covering each nerve strand is a fatty sheath called myelin (the plastic around a copper wire). Throughout our lives, fresh layers of myelin sheating are laid down in the brain, growing from infant to child to adult with increasing maturation of motor and sensory activity at first and then with the thought process, and reasoning skills, emotions and so on. Essentially, the brain is upgrading itself until 45 years old, with the most myelin formation occurring in the frontal and temporal lobes. The cerebral cortex and in particular the pre-frontal cortex is representing the area of higher cognitive functions such as integrating information, reflective consciousness, complex social function, abstract thinking, planning, memory and attention. The greatest interest is how the left and the right hemispheres often work independently from each other.  With age, this somewhat independent process tends to decrease with an increasing process of bilateralization to compensate for the decline, integrating both hemispheres. This integration may lead to even better thought and reasoning processes that are better with age. Interestingly, many people describe personality changes in the middle age as a mid-life crisis with all its negative connotations, but perhaps it is a reorienting, a re-connection of neurons, and not a crisis.

Research has consistently found that neural conduction and processing speed decrease as well as stamina but applied intelligence, knowledge, expertise, and memory is maintained. Pattern recognition and intuition, diversity, verbal, visual and auditory processing, resilience and perseverance are maintained. Neurological research shows that engaging in art or any creative activities improves cognitive functions, enhances cognitive reserves, thoughts and memory helping the brain to compensate for aging. These factors play a major role in creativity in aging and are alternative brain strategies.

Researchers at Mayo Clinic, Rochester University, Minnesota, followed 256 people aged 80 years and older. The volunteers reported being engaged in a variety of creative activities for many years. Although a third of these individuals had developed early mild cognitive impairment, the others involved in creative activities were 53 to 73% less likely to develop cognitive impairment. In fact, they concluded that those people who have developed rich and fulfilling lives with multiple interests and multiple talents, continued to develop psychological and social complexity, well in the later age.

Studies have found that mania, depression and bipolar illness have an increased incidence in highly creative people, and in people with highly creative jobs. Mania increases the speed of mental processing, and disinhibits the mind, while depression creates a state of negativity and concentration which can lead to creativity. For instance, damage to the central pre-frontal cortex leads to problems such as inappropriate social behavior, lack of moral judgment, decreased thoughts process, difficulty planning and maintaining focus.

Too many people see getting older as a downslide of mental and physical deterioration through illnesses, disability and death. We may have health issues but we do not need to be defined by them. We have the knowledge, expertise, information and memory, to age well. We have the talent for reflective thinking that supports the role that older adults play in our society. Not everyone achieves serenity and creativity, but for those who do, the later years can be the best.

Let’s emphasize encouraging creativity as a brain-healthy behavior, at any age.