Laura Ingalls Wilder was 65 years old when she published Little House in the Big Woods, which was the first of the Little House series of books that spawned the hit television drama series, “The Little House on the Prairie.” Wilder was 76 years old when she finished the final book in her Little House series.
While some folks like to call it a life and simply coast by during their golden years, Wilder used these years to crank out her most magnificent writing pieces of her entire life—forever cementing her place in history as one of the most influential children’s authors of all time.
Steve Jobs said, “It’s rare that you see an artist in his 30s or 40s able to really contribute something amazing.”
Albert Einstein said, “A person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of thirty will never do so.”
Modern scientific research may be telling us a different story.
Aging brains can actually increase creativity and would explain why Laura Ingalls Wilder was able to produce her best work well into her 70s.
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Dynamics of the aging brain
Parts of our brain wear down over time much like the rest of our body’s organs. As we get older, several structural, chemical, and neurocognitive changes occur in the brain. Our brain’s cognitive ability declines as we start to forget birthdays and misplace the car keys. The volume and weight of our brain declines with age at a rate of around 5% per decade once we reach our 40s. It figures we cut weight in our brains effortlessly but can’t seem to shed those nagging 5 pounds of bodyweight after grueling hours spent in the gym.
Although scientists understand how the brain naturally degenerates, most research has been focused on neurodegenerative diseases of the brain such as Alzheimer’s.
Neuropsychologist Dr. Rex Jung studied the slower connections in the brain as a result of natural degeneration processes. Dr. Jung found that slower connections in the brain can actually help your creative juices flow better.
Jung’s research tells us that there is a link between the brain’s white matter and creativity.
What exactly does the brain’s white matter do?
- Formation of the brain’s white matter, or myelin sheath, is known as myelination
- White matter of the brain is made up of both myelin and nerve fibers
- Nerve fibers form the connections between the nerve cells
- The myelin sheath serves as a protective layer of fatty tissue wrapped around the nerve fibers
- The fatty white tissue grows exponentially during our first two years of life and slows down at a steady pace, fully maturing in our 40s
- White matter fills nearly 50% of our brains
Think of the cable line running to your home. The brain’s nerve fibers would serve as the cable line’s main communication channel directing the signal to your home. The myelin sheath serves as the protective outer insulation of the cable allowing for sharp, faster cable signals to your home. The deterioration of your cable’s outer protective layer can slow down the connection and interrupt the speedy signal.
Myelin allows the messages in your brain to travel quickly throughout your body. It provides the ‘boost’ to your high-speed internet connection.
The neural link to creativity
White matter begins to slowly decline when we hit our 40s as the myelin sheath starts to deteriorate. The withering away of the myelin sheath causes the brain receptors to no longer fire rapidly.
Sounds harsh for anyone about to hit the over the hill mark.
But we need not worry just yet. Dr. Jung has proven that this downward trajectory of the brain’s white matter can be a good thing.
Dr. Jung said in an interview:
So with intelligence, an analogy I’ve used is there’s this superhighway in the brain that allows you to get from Point A to Point B. With creativity, it’s a slower, more meandering process where you want to take the side roads and even the dirt roads to get there, to put the ideas together. So the down regulation of frontal lobes, in particular, is important to allow those ideas to link together in unexpected ways.
This might allow for the linkage of more disparate ideas, more novelty, and more creativity,
Jung used diffusion tensor imaging to study the white matter of 72 people. He found the most creative individuals had lower white-matter and believes the deceleration of the neural communication channels improves creativity.
What triggered Jung’s study was the finding that the break down in white matter in people with dementia, often made them more creative. So while dementia may take down our brain’s most critical functions, it may never strip us of our pencils, paintbrushes, cameras or musical instruments. The mortician will just have to pry these instruments from our rigor mortis stricken fingertips before lowering us six feet under. I think I hear Grandpa in the den attacking the piano keys with a ferocious rendition of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.”
The future looks bright for our ever-evolving brains
There is still much to be learned about the mysterious inner workings of our brains. Modern science and technological advances will continue to unravel the mysterious complexities of the brain.
Throughout history it was believed that the complex wiring of the brain was fixed and incapable of any type of transformation once we reached a certain age. It wasn’t until the 20th century that breakthrough scientific discoveries proved the brain’s powerful ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life—a process known today as neuroplasticity.
Couple the power of neuroplasticity with the withering away of the brain’s white matter as we age, and our central processing units are wired for creative mastery well into the autumn of our lives.
Image source: my-ms.org