Older artists don’t necessarily lose their chops. New studies seem to show that the aging process actually improves certain abilities. At McMaster University in Canada, researchers found that elderly people are better able to grasp “the big picture” than younger people. As the big picture is a desirable element in all pictures, this insight has implications for artists both young and old.
The study tested young and elderly volunteers. In a series of computer-generated images, the appearance of a set of bars changed while they watched. The bars first appeared small, then larger, in low-contrast and high-contrast. Each volunteer was asked to determine the direction in which the bars moved. Researchers monitored the time it took for them to decide. Younger volunteers took less time when the bars were small, or when the bars were low in contrast. The elderly did better when the bars were large and high in contrast.
Researcher Patrick Bennett noted, “The results show the odd case in which older people have better vision than younger people.” He concludes that when the young brain sees big, high-contrast objects, it effectively tunes out the rest of the picture. It does so through nerve pathways that help inhibit other signals. Older brains do not inhibit information in the same way. The result is that the older brain requires less time to discriminate certain patterns — and actually performs the task better. Very interesting.
“As we get older, it becomes harder to concentrate on one thing and ignore everything else,” says Bennett. “It takes more effort to tune out distractions. Although it’s not clear if those factors are all linked, performance changes in elderly people may be due to the brain cells’ ability to affect other brain cells. Some brain cells enhance brain signals while others inhibit them.” It seems that older people may be better able to “improvise” and use alternate brain cell areas. Are greater mental freedom and holistic integration part of the payoff?
I’ve often heard older artists say, “Things that used to give me trouble don’t any more, and things that didn’t give me trouble, do now.” I’ve always attributed this remark to learning and practice. Now we might assume this is just part of the aging process. “You’re not getting older, you’re getting better.”
Esoterica: At the same time, aging is loaded with pitfalls that can erode the valuable innocence and quick grasp of youth. Practically every older artist has noticed that trodden (neural) paths get re-trodden out of convenience and habit. A growing need for order and sense of propriety can take precedence over blind flair. Conditions like homeostatic design tendency and timid brush need to be battled daily. Aging artists (and the young grown old) often need to apply a “vacuum cleaner of the head.” If ever one of these instruments comes on the market, please let us know.
This letter was originally published as “The aging artist” on February 11, 2005.
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“As we advance in life it becomes more and more difficult, but in fighting the difficulties the inmost strength of the heart is developed.” (Vincent van Gogh)
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