When New Life Springs from the Old

October 23rd, 2012, 7am

Grandma Moses notwithstanding, much could be said about why creativity blossoms mainly in the young and then declines with age. To put it in several nutshells: increasing responsibilities at home and work, cultural expectations, stress, getting stuck in habits of mind, health patterns and . . . And then there’s the actual physical deterioration of body and mind, associated especially with old age. You can forgive a septuagenerian for wondering about these matters.

Successful maturation of cognitive, motor, and sensory functions depends on establishing an insulating sheath around the axons of the nerve cells in the brain. Surprisingly, this developmental process, called myelination, continues from childhood well into one’s 40s. Better myelination means faster and more effective transmission of messages, which is associated in turn with greater precision of thought and clarity of focus. Sadly, in one’s forties and fifties, the dread process of Demyelination gets underway which is usually associated with exactly the opposite effects.

Recently, I ran across the ideas of Rex Jung, from the department of neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico. Jung suggests that demyelination may actually heighten creativity in older people. At a time when your brain has lots of data at its disposal, looser frontal lobe organization and fewer brakes on its frontal inhibitors, you may be “able to put things together in more novel and useful ways. . . . When you see an increase in people’s creative undertakings in retirement, it may not be just because they’re retired and have more time on their hands; it may be because the brain organization is different,” said Jung.

I know that choosing to believe particular scientific ideas because they fit with your own hopes and desires is an impermissible procedure called cherry picking. But you know, I think I’m going to run with this one.

Lloyd, Adrian, Jack, Steve and 10 others said thanks.

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David Wade Chambers

Born in Oklahoma: 30 years in US. 6 years in Canada, 40 years in Australia. Academic field: history and philosophy of science. Currently, teach indigenous studies online at Institute of American Indian Arts (Santa Fe, NM) and Brandon University (Manitoba). Come visit our B&B on Australia's Great Ocean Road. Mate's Rates for Hi community! (http://www.cimarron.com.au)

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