24 May 2019

The Most Creative Age

When does creativity
glow brightest
Welcome back. Are you creative? Do you or did you ever have the ability to produce original or unusual ideas or make something new or imaginative? Did your creativity peak at a certain age?

A number of studies have examined how old people were when they were most creative, when they did their best work. The ages vary with the field or endeavor, and you may find fault with the criteria used for rating creativity; but you still might be interested to see how your creative peak--whether past, present or future--compares to that of others.

Peak Creativity in Forms of Art
In separate investigations, a researcher from the Erasmus School of Economics in the Netherlands determined the age when modern art painters, writers and classical music composers produced their best work.

To assess the most creative age of painters in a 2013 study, he began with the 189 highest-price paintings. The average age of the painters who created these paintings was nearly 42.

For writers, he considered Nobel Prizes for Literature. In a 2014 study, he found the average age of 89 Nobel Laureates approached 45 when they wrote their prize-winning work.

And for his 2016 study of composers, he identified the 100 most popular classical music composers from a website that documents the most often performed works. The average age at which they composed their most popular work was about 39.

Peak Creativity in Sciences
Determining the age when Nobel Laureates did their prize-winning work was the approach taken earlier by researchers affiliated with Northwestern and Ohio universities and the National Bureau of Economic Research. Their 2011 study analyzed 525 Nobel Laureates in physics (182), chemistry (153) and medicine (190) from 1901 to 2008.

They found the differences among the three fields were small compared with the differences over time within each field. For example, before 1905, 60% to 70% of prize-winning work was done before age 40, with about 20% before age 30. By the end of the century, Nobel prize-winning work before age 30 was near 0%.

The mean age at which Nobel Laureates produced their prize-winning work in physics, chemistry and medicine from 1901 to 2008 (whole), through 1905 (early) and from 1985 (late); standard errors in parentheses (from www.pnas.org/content/108/47/18910).
The age increase mirrors both the increase in training--how long it takes to acquire foundational knowledge--and the decrease in theoretical contributions.

Regarding training, most Nobel laureates in these fields earned their PhDs by age 25 in the early 20th century. The number dropped substantially by the end of the century.

As for the nature of the contribution, theoretical/deductive contributions tend to come earlier in scientific careers than do inductive contributions, which build more on the knowledge associated with increased training.

Peak Creativity in Economics

The Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, officially “Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel,” was established in 1968, not by Alfred Nobel’s will (from www.geni.com/projects/Nobel-Prize-Winners-in-Economics/8200).
In a recent study of age and creativity--the study that got me started--collaborators from Ohio State and Chicago universities examined 31 Nobel Laureates in economics.

By ranking the laureates on a scale from most conceptual/deductive to most experimental/inductive, they found the conceptual laureates made their most important contribution at an age of about 25, while experimental laureates peaked in their mid-50s.

Wrap Up

Comment on creativity
attributed to Einstein.
Well? How do you compare? Don’t lose sight of the many other forms of creativity or the other criteria for judging creativity.

If you’re into the mystical, you’ll appreciate how the researcher who studied painters, writers and composers expanded his assessment. Besides determining the average ages of peak creativity, he calculated the percentages of lifespan they had lived to that point.

It turns out that those percentages for painters and composers, 62% and 61%, are almost exactly the golden ratio, also known as the divine proportion among other labels. (Writers, at 57%, are off a bit.)

Apparently, Euclid studied the mathematical properties of the golden ratio around 300 BC, and its proportions pop up in music, art, architecture and patterns of nature. If you’re reading this, it’s too early for you to calculate your ratio. Thanks for stopping by.

Study of when painters did their best work in Creativity Research Journal: www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10400419.2013.843912
Study of when writers did their best work in Creativity Research Journal: www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10400419.2014.929435
Study of when composers did their best work in Creativity Research Journal: www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10400419.2016.1162489
Article on forms of art creative peak on Washington Post website: www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/06/23/when-you-will-most-likely-hit-your-creative-peak-according-to-science/

Study of scientific creativity in Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences: www.pnas.org/content/108/47/18910
Study of economics creativity in De Economist journal: link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10645-019-09339-9
Article on economics creativity on EurekAlert website: www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2019-04/osu-cin042319.php
Golden ratio: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_ratio

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