- Passing one’s 50th birthday often triggers a burst of creativity, experts say
- The scientists' findings may explain the success of older achievers
- Colonel Harland David Sanders was 65 when he founded his first KFC shop
Those of us advancing in years may despair that we are becoming ever more easily distracted.
But passing one’s 50th birthday often triggers a burst of creativity unparalleled in a person’s younger years, a study suggests.
The findings may explain the success of older achievers such as British novelist Richard Adams, who published Watership Down at 52 after a career in the Civil Service, and American author Laura Ingalls Wilder, who was 65 when she wrote the first of the Little House on the Prairie books.
Men and women over 50 often have a creative burst of energy, researchers at University of Toronto in Canada and Harvard in the US found
Colonel Harland David Sanders was also 65 when he founded the first of his Kentucky Fried Chicken shops – which have gone on to become a global phenomenon.
Part of the reason older people are seen as having poorer mental abilities than the young is that laboratory tests on mental ability tend to involve highly-focused tasks, which older adults find harder. But these tests often do not mirror real-life situations.
Researchers from the University of Toronto in Canada and Harvard in the US found that being easily distracted, as tests show older people are, can actually be a help with problem solving and learning new information. Writing in the scientific journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, they looked at results from a host of studies and brain scans.
Being able to focus tightly on information, as some tests demand, is known to psychologists as cognitive control.
But Toronto University researcher Tarek Amer said some tasks benefit from a broad focus of attention – such as creative thinking or using information that was previously considered irrelevant.
The scientists found that men and women over 50 were more likely to become distracted which led to creative flourishes
‘The literature gives us the impression that older adults are essentially doomed as their cognitive abilities decrease,’ he said.
‘In reality, many older adults get along just fine in their day-to-day lives, and we think that shows that ageing adults don’t always need to have high cognitive control.’ Mr Amer and his colleagues discovered that people with lower levels of cognitive control found it easier to solve problems creatively, and they were better at spotting patterns in the world around them.
This means older adults can outperform younger counterparts on certain problem-solving tasks – as they find it easier to broaden their attention. Most day-to-day tasks, like walking down the street or learning new information, do not benefit from tight focus in cognitive control, the researchers said.
Co-author Lynn Hasher, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, said: ‘Many of the tasks that we study in classic cognitive psychology require high cognitive control, but these might not accurately mirror what people do in the real world because they limit distractions.
‘A distraction in one setting can actually be useful information in another, and the more information you have, the better able you’re going to be to address a current problem.’
She added: ‘We think it’s possible that studying reduced cognitive control can help us understand how older adults can still perform independently and successfully in their lives.’