A recent study used brain scans to explore how creativity changes as people grow older. The researchers found that adolescents were less creative than both young and older adults. They also discovered that the brain’s executive control network played a role in creativity. In adolescents, greater connectivity in this network was associated with higher creativity, while in adults, it was associated with lower creativity. The study was published in Brain and Cognition.
Creativity is the ability to generate novel and useful ideas. In psychological research, it is typically assessed by examining one’s divergent thinking abilities. Individuals with high divergent thinking abilities are those who are able to come up with many different solutions to problems (provided that the nature of the problem allows many different solutions). To be creative, an individual also needs a good working memory, intelligence and efficient functioning of a number of other cognitive processes.
Creativity seems to develop through childhood and into adolescence. It also seems to decline naturally at older age. In a similar fashion, divergent thinking generally tends to decline between middle and late adulthood, but remains relatively stable after that.
Studies have found that groups of 56–74-year-olds, 75-85 and 86-98 do not differ in their divergent thinking abilities. However, one should bear in mind that among people of so advanced age, there is an ever more profound survivor effect in place – participants and people in these categories in general are only people who have survived to the advanced age, while many of their birth year peers have not.
Study author Jordanna A. Kruse and her colleagues wanted to investigate the effect of age on creativity from adolescence to late adulthood. They also wanted to investigate the brain networks associated with creativity. To do this, they conducted a neuroimaging study involving adolescents and adults.
The study included a total of 180 participants: 86 adolescents (11-18 years old), 52 younger adults (19-35 years old), and 42 older adults (50-81 years old). Out of these, 111 participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans while they were at rest. The remaining 69 participants only completed the creativity-related task.
All participants completed the “egg creativity task,” which assessed their divergent thinking. In this task, participants were asked to think of as many creative solutions as possible to prevent a chicken’s egg from breaking when dropped from a height of 30ft. They had 10 minutes to generate these solutions.
The researchers chose this task because it doesn’t require expertise and can differentiate between individuals who only consider obvious solutions based on their existing knowledge and those who explore less common options (indicating higher creativity). Based on the responses to the egg task, the researchers evaluated 10 different aspects of creative thinking.
The results showed that, on average, young adults had higher creativity scores than adolescents in almost all aspects. Older adults had higher scores than adolescents in 5 aspects of creativity, while their scores were similar in the remaining aspects. Younger adults scored higher than older adults in one aspect of creativity, while their scores were similar in the other aspects.
The fMRI scans revealed that connectivity in the executive control network of the brain was associated with a group of creativity aspects referred to as “expansive creativity.” This association was positive in adolescents but negative in both young and older adults. This means that adolescents with better connectivity in the executive control network tended to be more creative, while adults (both younger and older) with better connectivity tended to be less creative.
Functional network connectivity is the degree of synchronization or coherence in the activity patterns of multiple brain regions during fMRI scans. The executive control network is a functional brain network involved in higher-order cognitive processes, particularly in the control and coordination of other brain networks. It consists of a set of interconnected brain regions, including the prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, and parietal cortex. This network is associated with functions such as attentional control, working memory, cognitive flexibility, and decision-making.
“Adolescents tended to be less creative than both young and older adults, specifically in variables related to expansive creativity, rather than persistent creativity. This supports the triple system model of creativity indicating that overcoming fixation effect [the tendency to only focus on obvious solutions, those that come to mind the most easily] by exploring expansive paths of solution [less obvious ways to solve the problem] results in higher creativity overall. At the neural level, the study reports novel findings indicating that functional integrity of the executive control network is positively associated with higher divergent thinking in adolescents, and negatively in adults, with these differences being significant between adolescents and both young and older adults,” the researchers concluded.
The study makes an important contribution to the scientific understanding of creativity and its neural correlates. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into account. Notably, all the analyses were based on just a single brain scan (per participant) and performance on a single task. Additionally, the sample size was relatively small. Results obtained by examining performance in different creative tasks and different time points and on larger groups of study participants might not yield equal results.
The study, “Changes of creative ability and underlying brain network connectivity throughout the lifespan”, was authored by Jordanna A. Kruse, Casey S. Martin, Noah Hamlin, Emma Slattery, Eibhlis M. Moriarty, Lucy K. Horne, Barbara Ozkalp-Poincloux, Anaelle Camarda, Stuart F. White, Jacob Oleson, Mathieu Cassotti, and Gaelle E. Doucet.