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Multiplying the Components

Lay theories of genius often seek to explain greatness through a single extremely rare talent: Beethoven for dreaming up grand melodies; Michelangelo for chiseling granite; Napoleon for anticipating where the enemy was weakest. Scientific theories of creativity, such as Amabile's (1983, 1996) componential conceptualization of creativity, Simonton's (1999) emergenic and epigenetic model of superior performance, or Sternberg and Lubart's (1991) investment theory of creativity, however, suggest otherwise.

Indeed, rare achievement can be arrived at when the individual is merely very good—say one in a hundred—at each of the several skills that are the components of composing or sculpting or knowing where and when to attack. Creative genius might, therefore, not reside in excelling surpassingly in just one component, rather it may occur when someone is "merely" very good in all of them. Because the components of golf are known, Tiger Woods makes this clear. He is not the best ever in putting, driving, or the short approach. But if he is merely one in a hundred on each of these, he will be one in a million in golf: 1/100 to the third power.

And while the distribution of each single components may be normal, the distribution of their multiplicative combination (and therefore, of creative achievement) is highly skewed (Lotka, 1926; Murray, 2003; Simonton, 2006). If creativity is indeed componential, creativity becomes much more trainable by improving each of the components to a high, but not superhuman, level. But much more research is needed to identify components within each domain.

In addition, the componential view suggests that the effects of aging depend on what the components turn out to be. One can imagine that each of the golf components—putting, driving, the short game—wanes with age, and so indeed there is a decline in Professional Golfers' Association tournaments won after age 35. But this is probably not true for basketball. Accuracy of the three-point shots may wane with age, but the passing game and the sense of where you are on the court might increase with age—at least for a while. It is said that Julius Erving was a great shooter at 20, but did not become a great passer and rebounder until age 30.

The number of components, as well as the importance of cognitive ability, may explain differences in developmental trajectories between domains. Creative achievement tends to peak early (in the early 30s) and drop off rapidly in domains such as lyrical poetry, pure mathematics, and theoretical physics, which tend to rely heavily on fluid reasoning. In contrast, creative achievement peaks later (in the early 40s) and exhibits a more gradual decline (if any) in fields that draw more on knowledge and expertise, such as novel writing, history, philosophy, and medicine. Psychologists fall in the middle of these two patterns, peaking around age 40 (Dennis, 1966; Simonton, 1997).

We conclude that it is likely that a componential analysis by domain will find that some components wane with age and others wax. To the extent the domain is like sprinting, which is essentially a single-component game, steady decline with age will be the rule. To the extent that the endeavor is a many-component game, like basketball or science, age might favor creativity.

Our review suggests that it is indeed possible that creativity can increase even as we age, a surprising hypothesis rarely discussed in the literature.

If this is so, why would evolution have favored more creativity at the very same time that many physiological functions start to decline? Recent theories seeking to explain menopause in humans provide an intriguing explanation. Humans, in contrast to other species, tend to live two decades after they stop being able to have children. Reproductive decline, thus, occurs much earlier than somatic decline.

What fitness benefits would this unusual, human-only feature imply? The answer may lie in economic productivity. Such productivity continues to grow over the entire life span, largely through acquired knowledge. In contrast, offspring often take 20 years to reach a level of productivity that will allow them to provide for themselves. Thus, adults must produce an economic surplus to provide for their children (either as parent or grandparent) and will be best equipped to do so if they stop reproducing early. By undergoing menopause, human adults can be alive and productive for the first 20 years of their children's lives and can generate the required surplus of resources. Kaplan, Gurven, Winking, Hooper, and Stieglitz (2010) reviewed evidence from a primate sample (chimpanzees) and a human sample (consisting of members of the Tsimane, an indigenous forager-gardening people living in lowland Bolivia). Reproductive senescence was closely linked to somatic senescence in chimpanzees but not in humans. In addition, among the Tsimane, the pattern of calories produced and consumed (as measured by food production and intake) by age matched the theory's predictions, as older adults produced sufficient surplus calories to allow for transfer to the next generations. Interestingly, this held both for women and for men; for in monogamous societies, a man's reproductive cessation occurs when his wife gives birth to their last child.

This theory relates closely to the conclusions of the present review, which is that several (but not all) processes central to human creativity likely remain stable or increase with age. Creativity benefits from the skills and experiences obtained prior to average reproductive cessation, and these continue to accumulate rather than decline with age. In addition, the theory states that the main function of reproductive cessation is to allow elders to provide economic surplus to the next generation, and creativity is in essence designed to increase productivity.

All this suggests that Beck, Broadbent, and Bruner may not be indulging in a self-serving illusion, and more importantly, it augurs well for teaching creativity. All of the capacities that likely improve with age may be teachable, and teaching them explicitly should make for a more creative world.

Jack Riemer (2001), a journalist at the Houston Chronicle, popularized the story of a 1995 performance allegedly given by violinist Itzhak Perlman. Having been affected with polio as a child, he struggled onto the stage. As he began to play, one of the violin's strings broke. To the audience's awe, Perlman went on to perform the piece with only three strings. We do not know whether this story really happened (it likely did not). What we recognize, however, is the importance of Perlman's conclusion: "Sometimes it is the artist's task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left."

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