Creative Youth

I've got a new article in the Wall Street Journal on the complex relationship between age and scientific creativity:

When James Watson was 24 years old, he spent more time thinking about women than work, according to his memoir "Genes, Girls and Gamow." His hair was unkempt and his letters home were full of references to "wine-soaked lunches." But when Mr. Watson wasn't chasing after girls, he was hard at work in his Cambridge lab, trying to puzzle out the structure of DNA. In 1953, when Mr. Watson was only 25, he co-wrote one of the most important scientific papers of all time.

Scientific revolutions are often led by the youngest scientists. Isaac Newton was 23 when he began inventing calculus; Albert Einstein published several of his most important papers at the tender age of 26; Werner Heisenberg pioneered quantum mechanics in his mid-20s. At the time, these men were all inexperienced and immature, and yet they managed to transform their fields.

Youth and creativity have long been interwoven; as Samuel Johnson once said, "Youth is the time of enterprise and hope." Unburdened by old habits and prejudices, a mind in fresh bloom is poised to see the world anew and come up with fresh innovations--solutions to problems that have sometimes eluded others for ages.

Such innovation could be at risk in modern science, as the number of successful young scientists dramatically shrinks.

In 1980, the largest share of grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) went to scientists in their late 30s. By 2006 the curve had been shifted sharply to the right, with the highest proportion of grants going to scientists in their late 40s. This shift came largely at the expense of America's youngest scientists. In 1980, researchers between the ages of 31 and 33 received nearly 10% of all grants; by 2006 they accounted for approximately 1%. And the trend shows no signs of abating: In 2007, the most recent year available, there were more grants to 70-year-old researchers than there were to researchers under the age of 30.

I then argue that this graying trend has implications for scientific innovation:

In recent years, psychologists have begun studying the relationship between age and creativity, trying to understand how increasing experience affects the way we think.

One theory suggests that creative output obeys a predictable pattern over time, which is best represented by an "inverted U curve." The shape of the curve captures the steep rise and slow fall of individual creativity, with performance peaking after a few years of work before it starts to decline in middle age. By the time scientists are eminent and well-funded--this tends to happen in the final years of their careers--they are probably long past their creative prime.

The inverted U curve was first documented by Adolphe Quetelet, a 19th-century French mathematician and sociologist. Mr. Quetelet's study was simple: He plotted the number of plays produced by French and English playwrights over the course of their life spans. He soon discovered that creativity had a sweet spot, which seemed to always occur between the ages of 25 and 50. (The data neatly confirmed Mr. Quetelet's own life story, as he was 39 when his magnum opus was published.)

Dean Simonton, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, has spent the last several decades expanding on Mr. Quetelet's approach, sifting through vast amounts of historical data in search of underlying patterns. For instance, Mr. Simonton has shown that physicists tend to make their first important discovery in their late 20s, which is why it's a common joke within the field that if a physicist hasn't done Nobel-worthy work before getting married, then he or she might as well quit. According to Mr. Simonton, the only field that peaks before physics is poetry.

Why are young physicists and poets more creative? Mr. Simonton argues that they benefit, at least in part, from their willingness to embrace novelty and surprise. Because they haven't become "encultured," or weighted down with too much conventional wisdom, they're more willing to rebel against the status quo. After a few years in the academy, however, "creators start to repeat themselves, so that it becomes more of the same-old, same-old," Mr. Simonton says.

You can read the whole thing here.


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The problem with these theories of creativity is that they fail to acknowledge the role played by the incumbent field of experts in recognizing the contributions of an individual (young or old). What we call "creative" is understood as such only through the benefit of hindsight, which in turn is based on the judgment of a recognized group of experts. See Csikszentmihalyi.

Newton is a special case. People annus mirabilis; but the Principia was written decades later, and then only under the threat of being scooped, and then only published thanks to the tireless work of Halley. See Levinson's *Newton and the Counterfeiter.*

And why is Darwin always left out of these discussions? Was there a more creative contribution to science in the 19th century than his theory? He's inconvenient for the romantic notion the young genius.

Mathematical prodigy is a function of the ease with which the rules of the game in some narrow field may be mastered. Math is almost by definition, a more clearly defined and hence communicated field of knowledge. The rules of the game in other fields take longer to master.

If we are to be creative at all, creation derives its purpose more often from questions formed in our youth than in our old age. Presumably it slows or stops in the most significant sense when we run out of new ways or needs to improve on our answers.

Then there's that old saying, too soon old, too late smart. Meaning for some that the latest of your questions will come up when you have less and less time left to answer them.

I'm sure this has been done to death on this blog, but I feel Gladwell's New Yorker article on Late Bloomers (e.g. the Darwins & Cézannes of the world) is germane.

I'm not denying Lehrer's point about precocity & creativity, merely highlighting that it's important that we as a society keep in mind the *other*, slow-burning, variety of genius.

By Fred Mailhot (not verified) on 19 Feb 2010 #permalink

The published works of Kuhn and Sveiby provide a different insight to this topic. Linus Pauling achievement of winning two Nobel prizes supports the idea that fresh mental stimulation and a lack of commitment to conventional wisdom are very important factors rather than physical age.

By Charles Mangio (not verified) on 20 Feb 2010 #permalink

I wonder if switching careers midlife may simulate youth, making it easier to be creative?

Erika Wagner of the XPRIZE lab at MIT has said that many XPRIZE winners are not experts in the field but come with experience from other, unrelated fields. Presumably they are unencumbered by the conventional wisdom of what can and cannot be done.

You have fallen into a the mythos of youth. It's classic unscientific thinking that relies on anecdote instead of analysis. The inventor of the transistor, John Bardeen was 39 when he invented it. Insulin was discovered by a 37 year old. Marie Currie, Linus Pauling, Neils Bohr and Richard Feynman all did their groundbreaking work in their early thirties.

So, how about some stats to back up your claims? Just go through all the Nobel prize winners in the sciences and give us a histogram of how old they were when their ground-breaking work was done? I bet you'll be disappointed in the results. Especially when you realized that the Nobel has a bit of a built in youth bias because people aren't awarded until years after the work, and I believe they must still be alive to receive the prize.

That is a really cool little piece of research. However, that same pattern of creativity, as it was described to me in my evolutionary psych class, could result from the imperative of males to find or demonstrate outstanding creativity to a prospective female. Or, once we get a mate and have offspring the drive to be different and dynamic fades into being dependable and reliable. Our body chemistry may actually be driving us to think outside the box because we are an unproven item to our future mates.

Did they check to see if there a split between men and women on their creative peaks in life?

The u-shaped curve concept is developmentally consistent with Howard Gardner's view of artistic development in children. Our youngest learners 2-8 begin high, exploring media, elements, and ideas with abandon. This demonstrates first draft knowledge of artistic processes and concepts, novelty and new connections. As children move from ages 8-14 they begin to adhere more to the rules and conventions of creating. They become better critics than creative artists. They want to know how to make it more literal or realistic often shedding creative thinking strategies in the process. Many children and perhaps physicists we leave at this place, at the bottom of the U, conventional. However, if you follow the curve and keep at it you can begin to explore your discipline at a new, more integrated level. Picasso has said that it took all his life to learn to draw like a child -- looks like he knew how to come full circle!

By pat pinciotti (not verified) on 21 Feb 2010 #permalink

Even if we assume that the notion of creativity dwindling with age is correct, there is a much more pressing detail which is being overlooked: graduate students and post-docs. Almost all scientific fields have adopted this paradigm where, one could argue, the vast majority of the actual science is done by these individuals who are in their 20s and 30s, while these older academics act mostly as managers and grant writers, securing funding, contributing ideas, but also allowing the post-docs and grad students enough freedom to pursue their own ideas as well. Thus, I argue that the demographics for grant recipients is not the best measure for the ages of scientific researchers. That being said, I agree that the lack of funding for younger primary investigators is a problem because it can lead to more and more investigators leaving academic research behind as funding and thus tenure become more elusive.

Well, Jonah, you are very wise for such a young person, and are usually spot on in your analysis. However, creativity often springs out of age (sometimes the result of left brain damage, sadly). I switched research fields entirely at age 58 and am doing exciting work (at least in my mind, it's exciting - not sure what my peers in the field think). In my university, some faculty peak early and some become better and better, producing their best work at a very late stage.

There is a wealth of funding now for new researchers to launch their careers that was not available when I began as a fresh Ph.D. I don't think lack of opportunity is the main issue for the youth of today. In fact I have to work miracles to start a new research endeavour and beginning researchers do not.

At least in the US we need to stimulate more interest in math, science and technology (STEM) in the young, before we lose a lot of capabilities. Our most creative young people are selecting other careers outside STEM, an alarming trend. Our K-12 educational system, with some brilliant exceptions, does not encourage creativity, especially in the sciences.

You have the ability to influence change. We need more science funding with flexibility that encourages creativity. That would be the first step.

Eh? That doesn't make much sense at all. Sure I might have a bunch more energy than my older colleagues and less responsibility (or at least, I'm only responsible for myself and my pet), but that doesn't mean my colleagues are old farts. And I'm in a creative intensive field. As for science, I've been working with a number of scientists in USC's bio department. If not for their appearance, I'd say they're far more energetic and enthusiastic than the students themselves.
Anecdotes isn't something to pull generalities from, I know, but at least in animation/film production and science, I've never personally witnessed any correlation between creativity and age whatsoever.

Ah, I mean to say "if not for their appearance, they're energy and enthusiasm could be mistaken for a much younger person (that child-like curiosity, you know?) and they're more energetic than many students".
Apologies, I posted before reviewing it thoroughly.

This article is very interesting, although I find it interesting that they don't account very much for the changing nature of academic research groups. From my experience, the labs run by 70 year-old academics are usually filled to bursting with graduate students running the labs and experiments. The lead author for the grant might be the oldest, but I'll bet you that at least 60% of the articles that come out of the labs funded by the grant have a much younger, much less experienced scientist as the lead.

My problem with the age and experience racket has more to do with publishing. Perhaps this is because I haven't had to fight for grants yet, but I know as a young academic it's almost impossible sometimes to get an article published in a good journal, even with the support of another, better established author.

So for now we play the waiting game: will the baby boomers retire first, or will we give up on academia and seek other employment before that happens?

Come on people!!!!! Wake up!!!! Doesn't alot of this whole youth culture thinking come from rigidly ingrained cultural sterotypes, that we insistantly purpetrate on ourselves. We believe, because our culture teaches us to, that we must become more conservative, less risk taking, more rigid as we age. We believe it to be a sign of wisdom to be patient when we age. Also if we've invested a large part of our earlier lives on a certain way of thinking, it's hard to let go of that when presented conflicting evidence, where as in youth we havnt that long history of invested thinking along certain lines. Isn't REALLY true innovative thinking willing to let go of prior thinking , no matter how long it took to get there, if it has proven to be no longer productive or valid???
You don't have to be young to think like this, it just takes more courage when your older and possibly have more to lose.

An addendum to my post above. Einstein had a hard time accepting the ideas of quantum mechanics cause it conflicted with his earlier and well invested notions of the universe.
His famous quote : god does not play dice with the universe , expresses his feelings about quantum mechanics quite clearly. Maybe he could have kept on inovating had he just accepted quantum mechanics and possibly seen where it fit in with his own notions of the universe???
Just a thought