This post was originally published on TaraRobinson.com on July 14, 2010.
Once upon a trip to Washington, DC, I overheard a conversation in the ladies room between a woman and her young son--a kid about 4 years old. It went like this:
Kid: “Mommy, why do the toilets flush by themselves?”
Mom: “I don’t know.”
Kid: “But why?”
Mom: “I don’t know. Don’t ask me. Shut up.”
I was dying to jump in and say things like it reduces what it costs to clean the bathrooms and it’s more sanitary. And I also felt very sad, because it seemed to me that I was witnessing a little tragedy: If that kid hears ‘shut up’ often enough, his curiosity will die.
Turns out, preschool kids ask about 100 questions a day. And at some point, most of them do stop asking. Some of that is a natural decline. But there may be a bigger problem for innovation and creativity over the long term. According to recent studies, creativity of US school kids is has been declining since 1990. As I read this article, one detail jumped out at me: how the brain does creative thinking when doing problem solving.
When attempting to come up with a new idea, the solution to a problem, for example, your brain shifts through many possibilities until a likely solution comes up. “Having glimpsed such a connection, the left brain must quickly lock in on it before it escapes. The attention system must radically reverse gears, going from defocused attention to extremely focused attention.” (emphasis mine)
It’s no secret that attention is in short supply these days. And with just a little digging around, I located the stats that make me think the decline in creativity may nothing to do with video games or standardized tests. What I looked for was the trends in diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). According to the CDC, the number of kids diagnosed with ADHD has increased significantly and steadily since 1997 which is as far back as their data reach. (You can see this info for yourself here; warning: it’s a pdf download.)
This made me wonder if the inability to focus, and particularly to shift from rapid fire thinking to pointed concentration, might be associated with declines in creativity.