Faced with the unprecedented challenge of sending people into space in the 1960s, NASA asked researcher George Land to predict which engineers were most adept at thinking outside the box. His simple tool predicted so well, Land tried it on 1,600 four- and five-year-olds, and later the same group as they grew. His results:
Age Percent scoring “creative genius”
We don’t lose creative ability so much as we learn to hold it in check. To prepare for the responsibilities of adulthood, we develop essential skills at judgment and decision-making. The prefrontal cortex isn’t fully formed until age 25. Land says when we try to generate and evaluate ideas at the same time, imagination loses. Adults who show childlike creativity are those who separate generation and evaluation into two separate stages, letting the mind run free before weighing the pros and cons.
Today’s favorite scapegoats for lost creativity are standardized testing and a school system designed to provide compliant industrial workers. I don’t buy it. Land did his research long before standardized tests became prevalent, and I’ve seen no evidence people were more inventive before the Industrial Revolution. If anything, children were pushed into adulthood even younger than today. What may be different now, due to rapid technological change, is an increasing need for creative imagination in meeting the challenges of adult everyday life.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.