Here at The Artist’s Road we promote creative thinking and doing at any age. Dr. Francine Toder has written a book based both on scientific research and individual case studies that not only supports the notion that a “vintage” brain can take up a new artistic passion, but that there are many benefits to doing so. She’s also a living example of her teaching. So I’m pleased to offer today a guest post by Dr. Toder, author of The Vintage Years: Finding Your Inner Artist (Writer, Musician, Visual Artist) After Sixty. Be sure to share your own thoughts and experiences with her in the comments!
When I decided to start playing the cello at age seventy, I was dissuaded by well-intentioned people for all kinds of reasons. They said, “You need to start young.” “You’ll never get good.” “What’s the point at this stage in life?” “It’s too difficult, try the recorder.”
The rationale to pursue the arts as a rank beginner after age fifty-five requires a non-traditional way of thinking. It isn’t about talent, future benefits, fame, or acknowledgment by others. It’s a boundless journey or an end in itself without rules or requirements. The decision to paint or write a memoir is often fueled by curiosity or by a rekindled interest from long past.
While pursuing the arts after sixty has a different goal than earlier in life, it also has a different trajectory. It might not start with burning passion. Instead it may begin by meandering down a path propelled by shifting priorities and nagging questions like, “What’s next?” and “If not now, when.” These could be the quintessential questions of The Vintage Years—the first stage in life without a clearly laid-out path and set of expectations. Many of us are still physically active, intellectually curious, emotionally stable, and yearning for meaningful ways to spend our time.
The neuroscience literature has happily reversed itself from what I learned in graduate school nearly a half century ago. Back then the prevailing ideas about the brain suggested an irreversible decline beginning about age thirty. In fact, throughout all of life nerve cells do indeed increase along with the connections linking brain cells! I hypothesized that taking up a fine art form at this life stage could maximally stimulate the brain and the psyche. Then I set out to see if this was true. I started by interviewing late-blooming artists, those who didn’t pursue their art until after age fifty-five.
If the decision to paint, or write short stories, or play guitar at this stage of life depended on talent or perceived creativity, the artists featured in my book would never have taken the first small step. But happily they did. Meet some of the artists:
- At sixty-eight, following a full life including the usual busyness of family, home, community involvement, and job as a butcher, Henry moved into an unplanned retirement. Not content to watch time go by, he took up whittling large blocks of wood, actually tree trunks. Ironically, this activity mirrored his childhood interest of making toy cars with his pen-knife, and his adult vocation of carving sides of beef. He hadn’t connected the common threads until we spoke when he was ninety-six—and still shaping wood figures, although now in smaller sizes. I was amazed by his memory, which he attributes to his artistic lifestyle and the physical activity required to sustain it. Henry’s brain and body have kept pace with his advancing years.
- Harold at 65 could look back at a satisfying mid-life spent raising a family and managing his career in sales. In the early days of his retirement he took an adult-education stained-glass art class. His goal was simply to stay occupied when all the fix-it jobs in his new home ended. With no previous art training his curiosity kindled a passion that in the past twenty years has led to creating extraordinary stained glass objects and windows that grace several houses of worship in New Jersey.
- Charmion wondered whether she was creative. At 70 she decided to find out. Her science background made her feel lop-sided and so for balance she took some poetry writing courses. That wasn’t a good fit but her interest in classical music later led her to the Viola da Gamba. Very difficult to learn and play, this six-stringed baroque period instrument is even larger than the cello. Charmion couldn’t have found a greater cognitive challenge! She’s kept at it for eleven years, playing for an hour or two every morning and taking yoga and tai chi classes to maintain her flexibility and strength.
Much has been written about the need to stay physically fit as we age but only recently has there been a focus on ways to maintain cognitive sharpness. The brain, like a muscle, benefits from vigorous use and there are some activities that seem to fuel the brain maximally. I’ve identified a triad of ingredients that serve as a robust tonic for the aging brain:
- newness or novelty,
- problem solving
Expressing oneself through the fine arts is the ideal way to harness these elements. Three years into playing the cello I would heartily agree.
The brain’s very resilient and flexible nature also gives it the capacity to change when we decide to make a change—which often cannot occur until the demands of earlier life begin to recede. It turns out that this timing is perfect. What are the changes?
- Neuroplasticity: refers to the ability of the brain to adapt, renew and reshape itself as needed throughout life. I expected that the older brain was capable of changing over time but some unexpected findings were especially delightful. For example, certain changes in the brain and endocrine system actually facilitate the artist’s journey after midlife.
- Bilaterality: Starting at midlife, the right and left hemispheres of the brain become better integrated, more interdependent and functionally intertwined, amplifying what we are capable of doing, thinking, and seeing;
- Focus: While the older brain, beyond age sixty, processes more slowly than its young or middle-age counterpart, it’s compensated for by the ability to better focus on individual tasks, because of having fewer distractions and less interferences associated with the complexities of earlier life. I saw examples of this over and over again, e.g. a writer in his sixties who used his laser-sharp focus to distract and create time-outs from illness; a bronze sculptor also in his sixties allowing his art to divert attention from a family tragedy.
- Patterning: This is a shorthand brain process that is most robust in the later years. It allows a huge number of learned ideas to come together in new combinations. This may account for enhanced creativity later in life when we can draw upon a vast storehouse of lifelong learning that can be expressed in unique, fresh, and complex ways.
- Hormones: Decreases in estrogen and testosterone in the years between fifty and sixty give way to greater emotional stability, calmness, and increased attention. These hormonal changes also increase tolerance for frustration, which significantly benefits the late-blooming, new artist.
Just like the more than twenty artists featured in my book, I focus on my art—practicing the cello daily. Hopefully I’m a good example of what is possible after sixty.
Francine Toder, Ph.D., is the author of The Vintage Years: Finding Your Inner Artist (Writer, Musician, Visual Artist) After Sixty (2013). She is an emeritus faculty member at California State University Sacramento and a clinical psychologist recently retired from private practice. Toder is also the author of When Your Child Is Gone: Learning to Live Again and, Your Kids Are Grown: Moving On With and Without Them. She resides in the San Francisco Bay Area and practices the cello daily. You can contact her at francine@docToder.com or find her on Twitter @DocToder.