Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Creativity, Wisdom and the Brain

Since I'm always on the lookout for ways to feel better about myself, I was happy to read a recent article in the New York Times. Evidently, when a person is scattered and easily distracted (as I am), she is more likely to be creative.

From the article:
In a 2003 study at Harvard, Dr. Carson and other researchers tested students’ ability to tune out irrelevant information when exposed to a barrage of stimuli. The more creative the students were thought to be, determined by a questionnaire on past achievements, the more trouble they had ignoring the unwanted data. A reduced ability to filter and set priorities, the scientists concluded, could contribute to original thinking.

But the Times article wasn't written to help me rationalize my disorganization, although I do plan to refer to it in excuses and probably in general conversation as well. No, it was really about the brains of old people. It turns out that like younger, creative types, old folks have a hard time tuning out extra information (and conversely, a harder time focusing on specific details), which actually gives them access to a broad range of knowledge. The upshot: collecting all that information makes the 60+ crowd appear to be wise.

From the article:
...in studies where subjects are asked to read passages that are interrupted with unexpected words or phrases, adults 60 and older work much more slowly than college students. Although the students plow through the texts at a consistent speed regardless of what the out-of-place words mean, older people slow down even more when the words are related to the topic at hand. That indicates that they are not just stumbling over the extra information, but are taking it in and processing it.

When both groups were later asked questions for which the out-of-place words might be answers, the older adults responded much better than the students.

“For the young people, it’s as if the distraction never happened,” said an author of the review, Lynn Hasher, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and a senior scientist at the Rotman Research Institute. “But for older adults, because they’ve retained all this extra data, they’re now suddenly the better problem solvers. They can transfer the information they’ve soaked up from one situation to another.”

Such tendencies can yield big advantages in the real world, where it is not always clear what information is important, or will become important. A seemingly irrelevant point or suggestion in a memo can take on new meaning if the original plan changes. Or extra details that stole your attention, like others’ yawning and fidgeting, may help you assess the speaker’s real impact.

“A broad attention span may enable older adults to ultimately know more about a situation and the indirect message of what’s going on than their younger peers,” Dr. Hasher said. “We believe that this characteristic may play a significant role in why we think of older people as wiser.”

So what's happening in the brain? According to the researchers, decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex from an injury is linked to an increase in creativity. But there was no mention in the article if the same is true of old-person wisdom.

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