In the face of expected declines as we age in speed, short term memory and deductive reasoning,how might we stay creative?
We need to undertake activities that help build cognitive reserve. This refers to the brain’s ability to operate effectively even when some function is disrupted. It also refers to the amount of damage the brain can sustain during aging, before changes in cognition become evident.
We can build cognitive reserve through taking up activities that present mental or intellectual challenges.
We know that benefits can accrue when we undertake art based practices throughout life and continue these into our mature ageing years. Taking up mental challenges like knitting and crafts, writing, reading and discussion through book clubs, as well as physical activities combined with maintaining social connections and keeping an open mindset, are proven ways to stay cognitively alert as we age.
The good news is mental decline is not inevitable with further evidence that some abilities can remain stable or even improve as we age. Research studies by psychologist Martin Seligman identified the cognitive factors maintained into older age including long term memory retrieval, verbal and academic knowledge, reading abilities, oral expression and listening comprehension.
By preserving domain expertise and knowledge these has been shown to compensate for overall mental decline, so increasing the chances that creative ideas will emerge.
Dr Seligman notes that as we age, we start to use shortcuts involving a degree of flexibility, useful to figure out creative solutions. Our pattern recognition is enhanced when we’re faced with a novel problem because we use our memories of similar situations to resolve it.
The older we get, the more information and experiences are available to us, and the more examples of successful patterns, heuristics and intuitions we have to draw on. Seligman also emphasises that the abilities likely to improve with age may also be teachable. Teaching them explicitly should make for a more creative world.
Our personality traits according to neuroscientist Dr Daniel Levitin, like curiosity and openness to new experience, both provide a neuroprotective benefit and correlate highly with good health and long life. People who are curious are more likely to challenge themselves both intellectually and socially, enabling them to stay mentally agile. He points to learning new things as one of the best ways to keep our brain active and healthy, as it ensures we continue to build new neural connections when we get older.
Creativity can also be enhanced by continuing to interact with the world. The interactions don’t need to be especially complex or risky. Dr Levitan points to studies where older adults were enabled to walk around an outdoor landscape freely compared to those made to walk around a rectangular path. They showed significantly higher scores in a series of creativity tests, including divergent thinking and problem solving tasks.
While the brain is not programmed to get stronger as we age, these studies may be showing a way that the brain compensates for the aging decline, sometimes integrating the brain lobe hemispheres efficiently resulting in better thought and reasoning processes.
As the brain’s flexibility improves, so too may our temperament resulting in an increased tolerance for ambiguity and improved ability to manage relationships. So, the key is to keep the brain active through introducing challenging and creative activities.