This is Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, John the Baptist. He was 67 when he painted it, an old man by the standards of Renaissance Italy. But he did much of his best work, including the Mona Lisa, in those years.
Another aged artist whose story I love is Grandma Moses. She had enjoyed doing delicate needlework all her life until arthritis got her hands. This must have been devastating but she took up painting at 76 and went on to become an international art sensation. Such stories are not unusual; many artists do their best work in old age.
There are scientific reasons for this which I learned about on Krista Tippet’s wonderful Podcast, On Being. This episode, called “Creativity and the Everyday Brain,” features Rex Jung (Young), who is a PhD neuropsychologist. The podcast is fascinating and I hope you’ll Google it and listen to the whole thing. But in a nutshell, here’s what Rex says: First of all creativity is different from intelligence. The intelligent brain is loaded for bear, it’s got a thick, firm cortex, many nimble neurons, and it’s maxed out on bio chemicals. Everything is set up to work in a fast, precise, efficient manner. Rex Jung says that intelligence is the super highway of the brain designed to go quickly from a to b. An example of the intelligent brain’s thinking would be: One (of anything in the world) plus One (more of that thing) equals Two. Doesn’t matter if the two things are battle ships or dill pickles, as long as they’re the same. This is brilliant stuff, a universal mathematical truth the likes of which allow us to build sky scrapers, travel to outer space and cure dread diseases.
However, like most of the other firm, nimble parts of us, intelligence peaks in youth, which is why Einstein spent his last 56 years noodling over little details of the big ideas he’d had in his 20’s.
Creativity, on the other hand, is a whole different animal. It comes from a capacity of our brain that is looser, thinner and not so hopped up on neural chemicals. Creativity gets off the intelligence super highway, takes detours onto country blacktops, turns down lanes and dirt roads, where it discovers seemingly unrelated things and pulls them together in ways that make not logical sense, but another kind of often bigger sense: For instance: One (subdued and moody landscape) plus One (thoughtful, upper-class housewife on the verge of smiling), equals The Mona Lisa.
I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say I have noticed an increase in my brain’s ability to be undisciplined, to hang loose, to wander free as a browsing deer among various seemingly unrelated thoughts and memories. That’s the place of creativity.
And that is why I, who could never paint a lick before, found painting almost easy when I joined a watercolor class at 66 years old. That is why I still get hours of pleasure and relaxation from painting. Please try your hand at art. It’s fun and good for your brain and it’s one of the happiest things you can do. This is Grandma Moses. Doesn’t she
Krista Tippet’s interview with Rex Jung on the brain science of creativity is available at her website, On Being. It is all about neuroscience, but quite understandable and really fun to listen to. Click here to listen: