Monday, November 17, 2014

Our Creativity and Productivity as We Age

Ezekiel J. Emanuel produced a rather interesting article recently in The Atlantic: Why I Hope to Die at 75.   His title is a bit misleading; he does not actually wish to die at 75; rather, he believes that at that age he should not take measures to extend his life.  From his view, at age 57, life at 75 would be sufficiently degraded that it would no longer be worth the effort to take measures that might extend his life.

“But here is a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.”

This logic and his conclusion was rather surprising to those of us who are approaching or have already moved past that target age.  In Aging: Why Would a 57-Year-Old Man Want to Die at 75? a counter argument was presented that pointed out that those who he described as “feeble, ineffectual, and even pathetic” seemed to believe that those years he didn’t wish to live were actually the most contented of their lives.

What is of interest here is Emanuel’s statement that aging “robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work.”  He makes these claims:

“Even if we aren’t demented, our mental functioning deteriorates as we grow older. Age-associated declines in mental-processing speed, working and long-term memory, and problem-solving are well established. Conversely, distractibility increases. We cannot focus and stay with a project as well as we could when we were young. As we move slower with age, we also think slower.”

“It is not just mental slowing. We literally lose our creativity.”

“….the fact is that by 75, creativity, originality, and productivity are pretty much gone for the vast, vast majority of us.”

He then seems to insult his academic colleagues who spend more time mentoring students in the latter years of their careers instead of focusing on their individual efforts.  The implication is that this occurs because of an age-related decrease in capability, rather than as a logical career choice.

“Mentorship is hugely important. It lets us transmit our collective memory and draw on the wisdom of elders. It is too often undervalued, dismissed as a way to occupy seniors who refuse to retire and who keep repeating the same stories. But it also illuminates a key issue with aging: the constricting of our ambitions and expectations.”

“We accommodate our physical and mental limitations. Our expectations shrink. Aware of our diminishing capacities, we choose ever more restricted activities and projects, to ensure we can fulfill them.”

To support his contentions, Emanuel presents this chart attributed to Dean Keith Simonton a psychology professor at the University of California at Davis.

Simonton does seem to be the preeminent scholar when it comes to understanding the aging and productivity of people who have demonstrated a significant degree of creativity.  Let us see what he actually has to say on the subject.  Simonton produced a short summary of relevant conclusions in bullet form here.  A copy of one of his articles is provided in concise but slightly longer form here.  The latter source will be used in the present article.

Simonton tells us that we should be careful in interpreting charts such as the one utilized by Emanuel.  They consist of averages over many types of activities, some of which have quite different time histories.  He also suggests that using chronological age as the variable is misleading because it is the career itself that has a time dependence of its own.  People who choose to pursue a particular creative activity starting later in life will follow a similar curve, but it will be shifted along the age axis.

“….we introduce a central finding of the recent empirical literature: The generalized age curve is not a function of chronological age but rather it is determined by career age….People differ tremendously on when they manage to launch themselves in their creative activities.  Whereas those who get off to an exceptionally early start may….find themselves peaking out early in life, others who qualify as veritable ‘late bloomers’ will not get into full stride until they attain ages at which others are leaving the race.”

This introduces the notion of a career trajectory that is more a function of career duration than physical age.  The shape of this productivity dependence on career duration varies considerably from one creative activity to another.

“The occurrence of such interdisciplinary contrasts endorses the conjecture that the career course is decided more by the intrinsic needs of the creative process than by generic extrinsic forces, whether physical illness, family commitments, or administrative responsibilities.”

Simonton provides some examples of differing productivity histories for various creative disciplines.

“Especially noteworthy is the realization that the expected age decrement in creativity in some disciplines is so minuscule that we can hardly talk of a decline at all.  Although in certain creative activities, such as pure mathematics and lyric poetry, the peak may appear relatively early in life, sometimes even in the late 20s and early 30s, with a rapid drop afterwards, in other activities, such as geology and scholarship, the age optimum may occur appreciably later, in the 50s even, with a gentle, even undetectable decrease in productivity later.”

Presumably, Emanuel would categorize himself as an academic scholar.  If he had read Simonton carefully, he might have concluded that as such he had a right to expect a long and productive life rather than assume that the death of his creativity was imminent.

Simonton provides us with another insight into age and productivity: even though less is produced at later stages of a career, the “quality ratio” is undiminished.

“….if one calculates the ratio of creative products to the total number of offerings at each age interval, one finds that this ‘quality ratio’ exhibits no systematic change with age.  As a consequence, the success rate is the same for the senior colleague as it is for the young whippersnapper.  Older creators may indeed be producing fewer hits, but they are equally producing fewer misses as well.”

This allows Simonton to suggest this startling conclusion:

“This probabilistic connection between quantity and quality, which has been styled the ‘constant probability of success’ principle….strongly implies that an individual’s creative powers remain intact throughout the life span.”

In other words, the decrease in creative output as a career progresses can be caused by many factors other than age.  Perhaps a professor at a university will choose to spend more time with students later in his career.  That is, after all, what professors are supposed to do.  Others may find a new creative outlet and gradually transition to a new discipline.  Artists may try to improve their “quality ratio” by investing more time and effort into each piece.

Simonton finishes with this conclusion:

“….the career trajectory reflects not the inexorable progression of an aging process tied extrinsically to chronological age, but rather entails the intrinsic working out of a person’s creative potential by successive acts of self-actualization.”

Damn!  We might as well live as long as we can.

Ezekiel Emanuel is director of the Clinical Bioethics Department at the U.S. National Institutes of Health and heads the Department of Medical Ethics & Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.

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