Friday, October 12, 2012

Do We Grow More Creative As We Age?

The conventional wisdom suggests that we generate fewer breakthrough ideas as we grow older.  An article in Psychology Today challenges that notion.   In the short essay, Dr. Gary Small, Director of the UCLA Center on Aging, offers an interesting perspective.  He says,  "There are neuro-circuitry factors that can favor age in terms of innovation".  Small emphasizes that empathy plays a major role in creativity, and we tend to become more empathetic later in life.   I found that point quite fascinating, given that design thinking stresses the importance of observing users in their natural setting and then empathizing with users - their problems, struggles, and needs.  

In addition, Dr. Small argues that we become better at pattern recognition as we age.  That makes some sense too.  After all, intuition does play a major role in the creative process.  Intuition essentially is the ability to recognize patterns based on deep expertise in a particular domain.  We refine our pattern recognition ability through a breadth and depth of experiences over time.

Having said all that, I have written previously on this blog about research showing that scholarly productivity in many fields does decline with age, though the peak performance differs based on the field of research.   Thus, we want to take this particular article with a bit of grain of salt.   The argument, though, that empathy and pattern recognition improve with age, makes a good deal of sense.  It suggests that innovation teams may want a good balance of young and old members, rather than simply stacking the groups with "the best and brightest young minds." 

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