New evidence that the “chaotic mind” of ADHD brings creative advantages

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Participant drawings from White, 2018

By Christian Jarrett

Focus and concentration, while normally considered beneficial attributes, can stymie creativity – especially the generation of novel ideas. This has led some to wonder whether people with “leaky attention“, and especially those with ADHD – who have what Holly White, writing recently in the Journal of Creative Behaviour, calls “chaotic minds” – might have a creative advantage when it comes to breaking free from prior examples. White, who is based at the University of Michigan, has tested this possibility, and though she acknowledges her new study is small, she believes her findings provide some of the first experimental evidence that “ADHD may be advantageous for certain types of creative thinking; specifically, divergent, unconstrained creative cognition.”

White recruited 26 male and female undergrads diagnosed with ADHD and 26 male and female undergrads without ADHD, and asked them to complete two tests of creativity.

For the first, the student volunteers spent 20 minutes drawing and describing pictures of alien fruit, following the instruction to be as creative and unusual as they could, trying not to duplicate fruit that exists on earth (see some of their efforts above).

Two trained judges, who did not know the ADHD status of the artists, then carefully rated all the drawings. Drawings by the undergrads with ADHD were rated as more original and containing more atypical features – evidence, White said, of their greater “conceptual expansion”, a process “whereby traditional conceptual boundaries are extended”.

The second task was designed to test the students’ ability to break free from the influence of prior examples and involved them imagining they worked for an ad agency and coming up with original product names.

For this test, White first presented her volunteers with the names of six example products in three categories – pain relievers, nuclear elements and pasta. All six examples in each category had certain letters in common. For instance, the pain medication examples always ended in “ol” or “in”, such as Tylenol, Panadol, Aspirin and Bufferin. The nuclear elements always ended in -on or -ium, and the pastas always ended in -i or -a.

The students’ challenge was to spend 10 minutes coming up with new product names for each category, following the instruction not to use or copy any aspects of the examples. Raters – again blind to whose work they were scoring – then judged the students’ suggestions based on whether or not they had copied the endings of the examples, and whether they also managed to sound appropriate to the products they represented. The students with ADHD managed to break free more often from the spelling conventions in the examples, while also matching the control students on the ability to invent names that sounded appropriate.

It’s important not to minimise the problems faced by people with ADHD and those who care for them. Also, the study sample was not only small, it also featured exclusively students with ADHD who were high-functioning and free of other problematic diagnoses. Remember too that the full creative process is about more than coming up with new ideas – it also requires dedication and focus to turn those ideas into reality.

However, White said that her findings show ADHD might come with certain creative advantages, and further research might “explore the potential contribution of the chaotic ADHD mind in the workplace.” She added: “By leveraging ADHD-related strengths and providing the necessary structure and support, individuals and organisations alike may be able to unlock the imaginative and innovative potential of the ADHD mind.”

Thinking “Outside the Box”: Unconstrained Creative Generation in Adults with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

13 thoughts on “New evidence that the “chaotic mind” of ADHD brings creative advantages”

  1. I am 49 ,Male and a recovering drug addict. I found this study has opened my eyes to questions that I have about my childhood experience and why I was able to think “outside the box ” with ease but found conformity in my life to be almost impossible to tolerate. Late in life around 39 ,I was diagnosed with ADD,and for many years I was labeled and medicated as bipolar. At a young age I showed all the signs and symptoms of ADD ,but my addiction took over and clouded not only the Dr.s judgment but also my own. I suffered for years, and maybe my story could help someone else, that has lost track of there mental disorder by simply looking at our young sounds simple but years of telling doctors what I thought they needed to hear for reasons of self preservation in the eyes of my parents or leading them to a certain drug I thought would help or wanted to abuse left me confused and unable to get a true diagnosis. I’ve missed out on so much of life and even though things are better now I struggle every day due to past experiences and lack of knowledge, self esteem, and a sense of belonging to society.

    1. Jonathan … your comment is brave, and I am happy to hear that things are trending better for you. I hope that your ongoing struggles are met by the universe with luck and circumstances that favor you, and that you find happiness and success (however you choose to define it) in your next 50 years of life. Keep up the good fight.

    2. how reliable and valid is any diagnosis that speaks to treat personal pathology almost totally ignoring the disordered cultural conditions casing so much suffering that grows the more its ‘treated’ through ideology

  2. Topher – it is very sad to see this blog consistently promotes the dubious, stigmatizing labels of psychiatry as facts rather than the voted into existence social constructions they are – We are increasingly encouraged to self identify with the now hundreds of ‘disorders’ in the DSM that locate any issues within the person as personal pathology rather than seeing any suffering as a complex interplay between person and culture and it is largely elements of culture that are disordered not us and we can only react and interact with it.

    Unless and until we begin to see the causes of our suffering are largely in the world suffering will continue to grow year in year out as it is and does decade after decade and all of this after years of talk therapy, psychiatry and drugs – all research should also be viewed through the lens of the reproducibility crisis that appears to demonstrate that most so called research is rubbish.

    1. I fully agree with you. “Problems” like ADHD is diagnosed with a checklist, and yet it is often treated with psychiatric drugs even when there is no evidence whatsoever of any objectively detectable pathology. My son was highly hyperactive when he was a kid, and luckily for him we didn’t take him to a doctor to be “diagnosed” (mostly because in the country where I grew up in consider hyperactivity to be a trait that most children have, and is also generally considered a psychologically healthy trait) – he grew up into a responsible, wonderful adult. As I see it – it is a matter of somehow dealing with this hyperactive behavior until the child himself is mature enough to control and amend their behavior. Things like mindfulness practices (and perhaps things like physical activity and yoga) can also help a great deal.

      1. I wonder if this seems like another way of ‘treating’ the person while leaving the cultural disorder intact many things harm us and school is a powerful harm for millions – they beat us breaking our bones and spirits to sit down shut up and have no real choices for years of your life – now we label and drug them on the increase each year – had I been at school now I would most certainty have been labelled and drugged but I do hope my parents would have seen this help for the deep harm to that it is.

        seems like good training to help form a conforming consumer debt filled worked to the grave in myriad ways tax payer.

    2. I don’t agree. I think that research like this brings insights as to why society finds me hard to accommodate. Stigma is in your head – reject it.

  3. Would this mean that people who do not have ADHD are not creative? For me, the most creative thoughts pop up when I am meditating (when the mind is not engaged in excessive thinking). I have heard many others mention this too.

  4. Interesting research that demonstrates what people with ADHD already know about themselves – following the donkey in front is almost impossible.
    Again and again I hear it repeated that ADHD people are creative because of some individualistic or whacky problem solving. However this is not some intrinsic creative gift we have rather that just we can’t follow the bloody rules so are forced to come up with our own ideas; we just can’t do anything else. Although ADHD people really can come up with original ideas, I have to say that sometimes I realise I have just reinvented the wheel. I also find myself thinking it would probably have been easier to read the instructions after all. And safer. And cheaper.

  5. I note that the subjects were all graduates and thus had already managed to pass exams etc. They are not typical of most with an ADHD diagnosis, who mostly are diagnosed because of difficulties in focusing on schoolwork. ( I won’t even go into the quagmire of wrong/misdiagnosis and the speed at which “disorder” within child is identified). So, it can be a representative sample and the results must therefore be assumed to be very dubious.

  6. Personally, I feel that people diagnosed with ADHD should not automatically be put on medication because many times it isn’t needed. I hated being on medication because I didn’t feel like myself and there was a noticeable difference in my personality when I was on my meds vs off my meds. However, if your experience with ADHD is more severe, medication should be considered and implemented if necessary. It is very important for us to realize medication alone is not an appropriate way to treat someone with ADHD. We must learn strategies for using our strengths to our advantage and for coping with our weaknesses, otherwise, it is much harder to be fully functional and to feel in control of our lives and to reach our potential and be successful.

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