When are you past your prime?

by Emrys Westacott

ScreenHunter_618 May. 12 12.10Recently I had a discussion with a couple of old friends–all of us middle-aged guys–about when one's powers start to decline. God only knows why this topic came up, but it seems to have become a hardy perennial of late. My friends argued that in just about all areas, physical and mental, we basically peak in our twenties, and by the time we turn forty we're clearly on the rocky road to decrepitude.

I disagreed. I concede immediately that this is true of most, perhaps all, physical abilities: speed, strength, stamina, agility, hearing, eyesight, the ability to recover from injury, and so on. The decline after forty may be slight and slow, but it's a universal phenomenon. Of course, we can become fitter through exercise and the eschewing of bad habits, but any improvement here is made possible by our being out of shape in the first place.

What about mental abilities? Again, it's pretty obvious that some of these typically decline after forty: memory, processing speed, the ability to think laterally, perhaps. Here too, the decline may be very gradual, but these capacities clearly do not seem to improve in middle age. Still, I think my friends focus too much on certain kinds of ability and generalize too readily from these across the rest of what we do with our minds. More specifically, I suspect they view the cognitive capabilities that figure prominently in and are especially associated with mathematics and science as somehow the core of thinking in general. Because of this, and because these capacities are more abstract and can be exercised before a person has acquired a great deal of experience or knowledge, certain abilities have come to be identified with sharpness as such, and one's performance at tasks involving quick mental agility or analytic problem solving is taken as a measure of one's raw intellectual horsepower.

A belief in pure abiity, disentangled from experiential knowledge, underlies notions like IQ. It has had a rather inglorious history, and it has been used at times to justify a distribution of educational resources favouring those who are already advantaged. Today it continues to interest those who prefer to see any assessments or evaluations expressed quantitatively wherever possible–-a preference that also reflects the current cultural hegemony of science. Yet what matters to us, really, shouldn't be abilities in the abstract–how quickly we can calculate, or how successfully we can recall information—but what we actually do with these or any other abilities we possess. Is there any reason to suppose that we make better use of what we've got before we're forty?


The prevailing view has long been that in the sciences people do their most important, original and creative work early. Einstein reportedly said that “a person who has not made his great contribution to science by the age of thirty will never do so.” But he would say that, wouldn't he? After all, he worked out the theory of special relativity when he was twenty-six. But Einstein was perhaps generalizing hastily from his own case. A recent study entitled “Age and Scientific Genius,” published by the National Bureau of Economic Research casts doubt on the prevailing view. After reviewing an extensive literature on the topic, the authors conclude:

In contrast to common perceptions, most great scientific contributions are not the product of precocious youngsters but rather come disproportionately in middle age. Moreover, perceptions that some fields, such as physics, feature systematically younger contributions than others do not stand up to empirical scrutiny.[1]

Interestingly, the average age at which scientists produce their most important work is now several years older than it was in the early twentieth century when Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg and co. were revolutionizing physics. One possible explanation of this is that at that time, because of the great paradigm shifts that had just taken place, young scientists didn't have to spend so much time learning about earlier theories that had been superseded. Today, however, the “burden of knowledge” that has to be assumed before one can expect to make an original contribution is greater.

But my main objection to my friends' claims about cognitive decline is not that they are wrong about the abilities central to scientific thinking, even if they are unduly pessimistic. After all, honesty obliges me to note that the same study of age and scientific genius cited above also makes this observation:

one of the salient features of Nobel Prize winners and great technological innovators over the 20th century is that, while contributions at young ages have become increasingly rare, the rate of decline in innovation potential later in life remains steep.

Sobering stuff if one happens to be, as the French say, d'un certain âge. No, in my view, the strongest objection to the claim that our mental powers peak in our twenties, or even in our thirties, is that in fields like literature, musical composition, and the visual arts, so many masterpieces are produced by people who are well past forty.

Now, as a philosopher I don't usually like to dirty my hands by doing empirical research, but in this case data is undeniably relevant. It's also interesting in its own right. Let's start with the visual arts. Since I don't claim any sort of expertise here, I took a shortcut andused as my representative sample the ten works that Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones considers “the greatest works of art ever.” In two cases, the Chauvet cave paintings and the Parthenon sculptures, we can't say how old the artist was. But here are the other eight works, with the age of the artist when the work was completed given in brackets.

· Leonardo da Vinci, The Foetus in the Womb (c 58-61)

· Caravaggio, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (37) Rembrandt_van_rijn-self_portrait

· Rembrandt, Self-Portrait with Two Circles (c 59-63)

· Jackson Pollock, One: Num ber 31 (38)

· Velázquez, Las Meninas (c 58)

· Picasso, Guernica (55)

· Michaelangelo (c 44-57)

· Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire (painted 1902-4) (63-65)

Only two of these works were produced by artists under forty. And if Caravaggio and Pollack didn't produce too many more masterpieces after the one's mentioned here it wasn't necessarily due to declining powers: Caravaggio died at thirty-nine, Pollack at forty-four.

How about classical composers? Here, I didn't find a convenient list of “ten greatest compositions ever,” so I simply made my own list of ten celebrated works by composers who had lived well beyond forty (which excludes the likes of Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Chopin) and would figure high up on anyone's list of “greatest classical composers.” The selection isn't random; it's made with a point to prove in mind. But I think it does that rather effectively since there is widespread agreement that the works mentioned are among the greatest produced by the composer in question. Again, the age of the composer when the work was completed is given in brackets.

· Bach, Mass in B (64)

· Brahms, Fourth Symphony (52) Images

· Handel, Messiah (57)

· Haydn, The Creation (66)

· Beethoven, Ninth Symphony (54)

· Verdi, Otello (74) [pictured]

· Wagner, Götterdämmerung (61)

· Tchaikovsky, Sixth Symphony (53)

· Dvorak, New World Symphony (52)

· Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde (48)

We might note in passing that several of these composers produced acclaimed masterpieces at an even later date (Verdi'sFalstaff, for instance, was completed when he was seventy-nine), and in some cases, the only thing preventing them doing this was that they dropped dead not long after finishing the work mentioned. Tchaikovsky, for instance died nine days after conducting the first performance of his sixth symphony.

Literature tells a similar story. Many writers have produced what is widely regarded as their finest work long past the age of forty. Feeding, as Wittgenstein says we shouldn't, on a diet of one-sided examples, drawn exclusively, I admit, from the Western canon, I offer the following fifteen instances to support my general point. The number in brackets is the age of the author when the work was published or finished.

· Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus (c. 90)

· Dante, The Divine Comedy (49-53)

· Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (55)

· Cervantes, Don Quixote Part I (57), Part II (67)

· Milton, Paradise Lost (59) Images-1

· Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (59)

· Swift, Gulliver's Travels (59)

· Eliot, Daniel Deronda (57)

· Hugo, Les Miserables (60)

· Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (49)

· Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (59)

· Hardy, Tess of the D'Urbervilles (51)

· James, The Wings of a Dove (59)

· Wharton, The Age of Innocence (58)

· Morrison, Beloved (56)

One could extend this list pretty much indefinitely, but there is no need to given the status of the works mentioned, many of which represent their creator's most acclaimed artistic achievement. Of course, there are many literary masterpieces written by authors younger than forty, but it is remarkable how often, in such cases, the writer died young, quite possibly with their best works still to come. Jane Austen died at forty-one; Emily Bronte at thirty; Anton Chekhov at forty-four; Franz Kafka at thirty-nine. To be sure, there are some who produce their best work in their twenties or thirties and never produce much of comparable quality afterwards despite a long life. Melville published Moby Dick when he was thirty-two; Wordsworth had written nearly all his best poetry by the time he was forty. But such cases, while not exceptional, are certainly not typical. Anyway, my point is not to deny that great art can be produced by young people; it is to argue that the many great works of art produced by people in middle age and beyond support the idea that some of our important cognitive abilities can continue to grow rather than decline during those years.

On the face of it, I would say the evidence presented here falsifies the thesis that we are cognitively declining once we're past thirty, or even forty. But how might someone who wishes to defend this claim respond? Well, they might argue that after forty all our basic cognitive functions are indeed declining, but we are good at finding ways to compensate for this, rather as a soccer player in his mid-thirties masks his lack of pace with more astute positional awareness. But then the question arises: why not count this sort of ability as an important function that improves as one ages? Or they might argue that what makes the great achievements of the mature years possible is the greater knowledge base—both of skills (know how) and subject matter (know that) which long experience brings. To this one could respond in a similar manner, that making good use of one's experience is another cognitive function that often improves with age. And if that seems a little abstract, even casuistic, one could point to other, more specific abilities that it is plausible to believe can continue to develop in middle age and that help to explain mature achievements like Paradise Lost or The Brothers Karamzov: for instance, the capacity for empathy, objectivity, self-awareness, and a synthetic grasp of complex wholes—all of them elements of what we call wisdom.

Another objection to my argument could be that the geniuses I cite are not representative of humanity in general. Perhaps one of the things that differentiates them from us ordinary mortals is precisely the fact that their cognitive decline kicks in unusually late, which enables them to put their growing wealth of experience to exceptionally good use. Against this idea, though, I would argue that the evidence against a general deterioration of all one's basic faculties could be culled just as well from people working in many fields: sports coaches, politicians, lawyers, musicians, film-makers…..

Finally, anyone who thinks I've been criticizing a straw man can respond appropriately with a cheap ad hominem, pointing out that my thesis is patently self-serving, coming as it does from one who is much closer to sixty than to forty. In response, I would first remind the critic that the so-called straw men in question are good friends of mine and should not be treated so dismissively. And second, I will appeal to the authority of William James, who, in his famous essay “The Will to Believe,” affirms that there are circumstances where “the desire for a certain kind of truth . . .brings about that special truth's existence.”

[1] http://www.nber.org/papers/w19866