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Does having ADHD optimise creativity?

0 2 years ago

Research shows that those with ADHD are shown to have better skills in creative cognition, conceptual expansion and innovative thinking – Eleanor Turner digs into these links and speaks to experts and creative practitioners about the correlation.


The visuals for this article were made by four creatives living with ADHD responding to what this experience is like for them.

It was life changing to discover, at the age of 22, that the forgetfulness, disorganisation, distractibility, chronic boredom, physical and mental restlessness, messiness and emotional inconsistency that had plagued my life were not only not my fault – but they had an acronym.

ADHD, also known as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterised by inattention and/or hyperactivity and impulsivity. As I’ve navigated the world over the past three years with this new awareness of my divergent brain, I’ve discovered that ADHD may not only be the reason for my lack of clean socks and many missed trains, but also the myriad of imagination games I invented as a child, my ability to find a unique way through problems, and my love for conjuring up household DIY methods. In other words: my creativity.

Researching this piece has catapulted me into the complex world of creativity research and it turns out, as with most things in life, a lot of different people have a lot of different opinions about what the hell creativity is. Julia Cameron, author of the iconic The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, describes creativity as a spiritual experience – a connection with the mystical – while the more generally accepted theory sets out three clear components for creativity: creating a product that is both novel and useful or effective in achieving a desired outcome.

By its nature, this latter, modern definition of creativity is capable of encompassing a broader range of fields such as technology, medicine, engineering, health care and, in the opinion of a friend of mine, body-building. This represents a current rise in the belief, present in other cultures and civilisations throughout history, that creativity should be used to promote social justice, health and wellbeing, economic advancement and even peace – as opposed to simply producing objects that are aesthetically pleasing.

So how does this relate to those of us with ADHD? Well, a stack of evidence suggests that people with ADHD are especially good at creative cognition – a set of mental processes consisting of divergent thinking (generating ideas beyond expectations or repeated thinking), conceptual expansion (the ability to broaden existing conceptual structures) and overcoming knowledge constraints. For example, in a study highlighted in the Journal of Creative Behaviour, participants were asked to create an “alien fruit” and product names without using aspects of the task examples. Compared to the control group, the ADHD participants produced alien fruit that “diverged more from earth fruit” as well as labels which conformed less to the given examples. Similar results were found in a 2006 study whereby children with ADHD performed better than their non-ADHD peers at inventing a new toy that differed from the given examples. Meanwhile, studies have demonstrated that for those without ADHD, task examples can result in “design fixation”, whereby a designer’s creations are limited by their reliance on pre-existing designs. Additionally, exposure to pre-existent solutions has been shown to encourage individuals to simply reuse old solutions, rather than devise new ones. In other words, neurotypical brains appear to be less correlated with creative originality than ADHD brains.

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