Creativity of the agile mind

Throughout my life I've thought of myself as fairly creative. I once gave a jar of ladybugs to a former boyfriend for his birthday. It was a huge jar — maybe 1,000 ladybugs. Incredible gift — he loved it. At least, I think he did — I've not heard from him for quite a while.

Yet another example, I painted our front porch barn-red. And I make "baby scones" that everyone raves about. Oh, and I "invented" a peppery, cottage-cheese egg bake that is also quite luscious.

Today I'm thinking about creativity as we age. The University of Minnesota (my alma mater) is doing extensive research on that topic. It's fascinating — makes me think about thinking in new ways.

"What keeps us creative as we grow older? For instance, why didn't I even consider giving those ladybugs to my 9-year-old granddaughter for her recent birthday? I know she would have been delighted by the gift, and she would have probably stayed in more regular contact with her grandma in order to report on the progress of those wee-spotted bugs with wings. By now she would have named half of them — or organized them into teams, such an agile little mind she has.

of M cognitive neuroscientist Wilma Koutstaal is studying this topic of creativity and uses the term "agility of thinking" a lot. Her award-winning treatise is "The Agile Mind." To me, the work she's doing is most practical when it ties flexible thinking and creativity to active problem solving. I'm squeezing out the relevance of her work to the aging mind.

One of Dr. Koutstaal's experiments involves giving her subjects pictures of objects and then later measuring "how" (not "if") they recall them. For example, did they remember a picture of an old sofa as "a sofa" or as "old?" For a mind to be truly agile it apparently "slides effortlessly between abstraction and detail" in its attempt at recall. It's refreshing to note that it's not "if" you recall something, but "how" you encode and remember it.

So, I'm now choosing to believe it's a good thing when my thinking slides around randomly in the attempt to remember the name of a friend I've not seen for a long time or when I'm asked to respond to a specific question about a recent movie I've seen — and I don't recall even having gone to the movie theater!

Apparently when our thinking "slides around," a little, it's a positive sign. The more your mind "flexes" and uses information at different levels of abstraction, the better. There's a framework for "making and finding" that's important to have in our heads; it keeps our thinking agile and our minds creative.

For example, if I cannot recall a name, I'll just call that person "sweetie" or "you rascal." And regarding that movie I'm being queried about? I'll just flex a little, change the subject and talk about another movie, creatively describing a particular scene. (By the way, have you seen the movie "Searching for Sugar Man"? It's mesmerizing.) Or I could divert and distract with agility by offering up my scone recipe — and promise a tasting.

Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor emeritus. Reach her at

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