For The Artist, Age Has Its Advantages


artist age

By definition, creativity is the ability to make connections where previously no connection existed. Synapses are the places where creativity occurs, where two thoughts connect and become one. “Connectivity is a key component” of creativity, according to Dr. Kenneth Heilman, a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Florida’s College of Medicine. These connections seem to increase over time, with experience and age.

Furthermore, environment can affect the efficiency of, and even type of, these connections. Studies on elderly cab drivers, for instance, have shown abnormally thick dendrite development in areas of the brain that control spatial acuity. Creativity, apparently, challenges the brain in the same way exercise affects the muscles; the brain physically improves as it learns.

Studies conducted as early as the 1960s showed that lab animals that lived in an enriched environment, an environment augmented with stimulating challenges — toys and mazes and wheels — produced stronger synapses and more numerous dendrites than those raised in traditionally sterile environments.

Dr. Marian Diamond, while a researcher at the University of California, discovered that lab rats living in stimulating environments had larger and sharper brains than their deprived cohorts and, in fact, lived longer. These findings are consistent with both empirical and anecdotal evidence. In a study of 300 seniors, Dr. Gene Cohen, author of “The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential In The Second Half Of Life,” found that older subjects who are artistic have “fewer visits to the doctor, fall less often, use less medication, and are less likely to be depressed” than less artistic older people.

According to Cohen, creativity seems to thrive on limitations. Challenges of all kinds force the brain to create new connections. Such accomplishments are valued by society and create a feeling in the individual of “mastery and contribution.” As we grow old, this sense of mastery, regularly exercised, brings about a phenomenon known as neurogenesis — a regeneration of the brain’s nerve tissue.

Unfortunately, we customarily think of aging in terms of pathology (and make no mistake, there is pathology in old age). Suspecting bias against maturity in the music industry, singer-songwriter Craig Bickhardt set out to discover what medical research had to say about the relationship between aging and art.

Bickhardt found that most gerontologists believe that age has its advantages for the artist. “The older brain’s sophistication stems from its complex adaptive ability,” he says, which is developed over time. “Repeated activity enables the mind to bridge more direct routes and to create the most efficient strategies for dealing with creative problems.”

The special privilege, too, of old age is to allow life to happen, to be open to discovery, free of the fears of failure or scorn or public opinion. Perhaps individuals who take up art or music or writing late in life realize, for the first time, who they are. Perhaps, for the first time, occupation and desire have their chance to run in tandem, complementing rather than competing with one another.

Gerontology is only now beginning to focus on positive aging; specifically, aging and its relationship to art. Artistic activity of all kinds — painting, music, writing, crafts, and hobbies — seems to benefit both society and its most senior citizens. It is no accident, I think, that ancient people relied upon their elders to be their “seers,” the visionaries whose final occupation it was to create order out of elemental chaos.

This article is updated from its initial publication in Brain World Magazine’s print edition.

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