What happens to our creativity as we get older?

In 1968, George Land conducted a research study to test the creativity of 1,600 children ranging in ages from three-to-five years old who were enrolled in a Head Start program. This was the same creativity test he devised for NASA to help select innovative engineers and scientists. The assessment worked so well he decided to try it on children.  He re-tested the same children at 10 years of age, and again at 15 years of age. The test scores results were astonishing:

Test results amongst 5 year olds: 98%
Test results amongst 10 year olds: 30%
Test results amongst 15 year olds: 12%
Same test given to 280,000 adults: 2%

“What we have concluded,” wrote Land, “is that non-creative behavior is learned.”
(Source: George Land and Beth Jarman, Breaking Point and Beyond. San Francisco: HarperBusiness, 1993)

For most, creativity has been buried by rules and regulations. Our educational system was designed during the Industrial Revolution over 200 years ago, to train us to be good workers and follow instructions.

Today we measure our childrens’ education simply by the number of exams passed and the grades obtained. Similarly, we grade the effectiveness of educational institutions according to league tables. Not only are we allowing children to become less creative, we are actually helping them to do it.

Later in life, we then tell them they have to be more creative and so we send them on courses or ply them with self-help books.

This is just plain wrong, we need employees with the creativity of 5 year olds.  Maybe we should just employ 5 year olds?

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Do you ask the BIG questions?

There are many lists of things that highly creative people do. I’m not going to replicate one of those here but just leave readers with one question to answer:

Do you ask the BIG questions?

Creative people are curious and highly creative people are very curious indeed. Rather than just wander through life they will wonder how, what, why, when etc about almost everything. They will not be trivial questions like ‘I wonder why Mrs Jones painted her door blue’ but more profound like ‘If you could track the water molecules in a river, where would they go?’ or ‘If the mountain came to Mohammed, how many lorry loads of rock were there?’.

Such thoughts lead to other things, ideas get played with or maybe shared and then the Eureka moment happens!

Creative people also have a habit of saying ‘Hold that thought’ and then going off on another tack or suspending belief completely. One of my favourite quotes is from an old children’s favourite – Winnie The Pooh.

“Hallo Rabbit,” he said, “is that you?” “Let’s pretend it isn’t,” said Rabbit, “and see what happens.”

So do you ask the big questions are are you concerned with how many hours it is until you can go home from work? Do some homework, think big, daydream, go off-piste with your thinking and play. Let me know how you get on.

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Creativity, are you having a laugh?

One sign that your brainstorming session is going well is an abundance of belly shaking laughter. Laughter can help people solve problems that demand creative solutions, by making it easier to think more broadly and associate ideas/relationships more freely. Recent research shows that people in a lighter mood experience more eureka! moments.

Karuna Subramaniam conducted research at Northwestern University and found that boosting the mood of volunteers increased their likelihood of having an aha! moment as measured by their ability to solve a word association puzzle, the standard test for creative problem solving. Those who watched a comedy were measurably better at the task using insight than those who watched a horror film, or worse yet, a lecture about quantum electronics.

Using functional MRI, she discovered that creative insight is correlated with increased activity in the brain’s anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) just prior to solving a problem. This region is involved in regulating attention and in problem solving. And people in a positive mood generally have more ACC activity going into the task, which probably helps. Participants who watched scary movies demonstrated less creativity in solving the puzzles. Other studies have shown that improvisational comedians generate more and better ideas than professional product designers.

Rex Jung, an assistant research professor of neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico and a practicing clinical neuropsychologist proposes that creative capacities are not the same as intellectual capacities. The ability to acquire and process facts and observations—to reason—is fundamentally different from the ability to put them together in innovative ways.

When we perform intellectual tasks, neural networks appear to function in more directed and linear ways. However, when we attempt to perform more creative tasks, it is as if the neural pathways plot more meandering paths. Jung’s findings suggest that our usual neural process of seeing and processing the world switches off for a while to make space for a different kind of engagement.

What does this mean for you in your role as innovation manager or workshop facilitator? Well, humour, lightened mood, and mental spaciousness are important when it comes to encouraging creativity, ideation, and problem solving.  This also validates the strange creative exercises that we facilitators like to do at the beginning of workshop sessions! In future newsletters I will feature some examples of how different types of humour can help us in different ways.

Wailing Brothers - Malawi's best reggae artistsIn the meantime why not lighten your mood by listening to a spot of Malawian reggae? Click on the picture to watch  the Wailing Brothers on YouTube.

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